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Environmental Group Continues Push to Stop PA From Leasing State Land

An environmental advocacy group on Wednesday called two former top officials from the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR) to testify on behalf of its efforts to stop Republican Gov. Tom Corbett's administration from leasing anymore state park or forestlands.

The testimony, heard in state Commonwealth Court, comes as part of a broader lawsuit filed in March 2012 by the Pennsylvania Environmental Defense Foundation (see Shale Daily, March 9, 2012), which called on Corbett to "fulfill his responsibilities" under Article I, Section 27 of the state's constitution, a rare environmental rights amendment aimed at preserving the air, water and natural beauty of Pennsylvania.

Former director of the Bureau of Forestry James Grace and former DCNR Secretary John Quigley took the stand to explain why the state should not be allowed to generate $75 million in revenue from new leases and why DCNR should not be allowed under a Corbett budget proposal to divert $117 million from the state's Oil and Gas Lease Fund for its day-to-day operational expenses. 

Shortly after taking office in 2010, Corbett suggested that he would eventually lift a moratorium on leasing state lands imposed by his Democratic predecessor, Ed Rendell. In February, Corbett said the state could raise an additional $75 million if leasing state land was allowed and he recommended using money from the oil and gas lease fund to pay for DCNR's expenses (see Shale Daily, Feb. 6).

The defense foundation filed a request for a preliminary injunction earlier this year to halt the proposals, but on Friday, Corbett issued an executive order to lift the ban, allowing operators to secure non-surface leases for the mineral rights under state parks and forests effective immediately (see Shale Daily, May 23).

Both Grace and Quigley said the state should refrain from leasing any more land until the full impact of oil and gas drilling on plant life, wildlife and habitat is better understood. More than 700,000 acres of state forestland have already been leased, and in the first of a series of comprehensive reports detailing those impacts released in April, DCNR said more monitoring would need to be conducted before anything conclusive could be determined about the safety of drilling in state forests (see Shale Daily, April 16).

Environmentalists have taken aim at Corbett's proposal to divert money from the Oil and Gas Lease Fund for operational costs at DCNR, as those funds have historically been used for conservation efforts. The defense foundation first filed its lawsuit in 2012 to prevent Corbett from eventually lifting the leasing moratorium, and it is now seeking a preliminary injunction until the lawsuit is resolved.

Article I, Section 27 played a pivotal role in the Pennsylvania Supreme Court's decision to strike down parts of the state's omnibus oil and gas legislation, Act 13, in a ruling that returned to municipalities their right to change or enforce new zoning laws, which has created a significant level of uncertainty for the oil and gas industry in some parts of the state (see Shale Daily, Dec. 20, 2013; Jan. 6).

Testimony is expected to continue on Monday and Tuesday, with the defense foundation planning on calling another three witnesses.

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