Marcellus Shale drillers in Pennsylvania will gain a sympathetic ear in January when Gov.-elect Tom Corbett takes office.

The newly elected Republican, now the state’s attorney general, last week unveiled his transition team and outlined some of the plans for the incoming administration at the state capital in Harrisburg.

Corbett had pledged during his campaign not to raise any taxes, which would include a severance tax on natural gas drilling advocated by outgoing Gov. Ed Rendell for the last two years. The measure, which had drawn strong Democratic support, died in the General Assembly before the election.

During a press conference, Corbett deflected some questions about gas drilling and drilling taxes. However, he said he plans to appoint a task force composed of industry officials, environmentalists and state officials to advise him about “reasonable” drilling policies.

“I believe we need to develop this resource,” Corbett said of the Marcellus Shale. “I believe this is an industry that’s going to be here long after we in this room are all gone.”

He also said he plans to gradually re-open the state’s forest lands to drilling, reiterating his opposition to an executive order last month by Rendell, which put 800,000 acres in state forests off limits to drillers (see Shale Daily, Oct. 27).

“I don’t agree with the governor’s moratorium on it,” Corbett said. However, that doesn’t mean he plans to open the forest lands to drilling immediately after taking office on Jan. 18.

The state’s natural gas reserves will be developed over many coming decades, Corbett said, which means that state forest leasing wouldn’t happen all at once in any case.

Among the transition team members who will help Corbett as he prepares to take over is the owner of SW Jack, a Pennsylvania-based drilling company, and former Gov. Tom Ridge, who now is a strategic adviser for the Marcellus Shale Coalition, a pro-drilling group.

Ridge, who spoke separately about Corbett’s transition, said the Marcellus Shale “represents a transformational opportunity for the commonwealth; one that will use our skilled workforce, reduce energy costs for consumers and enhance our economic and environmental well-being. I stand ready to work with our governor-elect, the newly elected state officials and all of my fellow citizens to make sure we develop this resource the right way. With the campaign ads and election season now behind us, it is time to develop a plan for the future of Pennsylvania…

“As the Marcellus Shale is developed, every issue needs to be addressed, and continuous improvement in every aspect is a daily goal. We are developing this clean energy resource for the benefit of our environment, communities and the nation. No corner can be cut, and our commitment to safety and the safeguarding of our air and water is an absolute priority.”

Reacting to the announcement that the drilling moratorium eventually will be lifted, PennFuture, the state’s environmental advocacy organization, said the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources had conducted a scientific review indicating that “further leasing of state forest land would damage environmentally sensitive areas, interfere with the other uses of the forest and harm Pennsylvania’s tourism industry.

“More importantly, it would threaten the scientific, independent certification from the Rainforest Alliance Smartwood Program, which guarantees that Pennsylvania is managing the forest in environmentally responsible ways. More than 40,000 Pennsylvania jobs depend on that certification since many large buyers of forest products in this country and overseas require this certification of their vendors.”

PennFuture said the new governor and General Assembly had “many tough choices to make. By refusing to consider reasonable ways to raise revenue, like enacting a severance tax on natural gas drilling…Corbett is limiting his options in addressing a $4-5 billion budget gap to making draconian cuts in state agency budgets. He has said he would ask all state agencies to make an across-the-board 10% cut in their budgets — a move that threatens to put 7,000 more people out of work.”