See Public Lands in Peril, Part 1 on gas development in Pennsylvania's state parks.
Pennsylvania’s state forests are facing an existential threat, unprecedented in the Keystone State’s checkered history of resource extraction. One third of the public’s forests -- 700,000 acres -- are currently available for natural gas drilling. Over the next two decades, tens of thousands of acres of public forest will be cleared or damaged, and the purest air and water in the Commonwealth is at severe risk of pollution. Thousands of wells will be drilled, and thousands of miles of pipeline, industrial infrastructure, noise, and traffic will fragment the forest and disrupt sensitive habitats.
And this threat may get vastly worse very soon. To raise money for an anemic state budget, Governor Tom Corbett is considering opening up even more state forestland for natural gas leasing. The move would very likely cause us to pass a tipping point in the sustainability of the public’s forests, with major consequences for the state’s economy and the quality of life of Pennsylvanians.
How did we get here?
Pennsylvania has always managed its 2.2 millions acres of state forestland as “working woods,” providing timber, natural gas, recreation, and rural jobs. State forestland has been leased for shallow gas drilling since 1947, and gas extraction also takes place on about 315,000 acres of state forest where the Commonwealth doesn’t own the mineral rights. But since 2008, with the explosion of Marcellus shale development in Pennsylvania, 130,000 acres of state forest have been leased in three lease sales. The General Assembly ordered two of these sales to raise more than $380 million for the state budget. The last sale occurred while I was DCNR secretary. At the time, I stated publicly that we had reached the limits of both leasing and reliance on the state forest to balance the state budget.
In 2010, after a two-year analysis (that I ordered as secretary), DCNR concluded that no additional leasing involving surface disturbance can occur without significantly altering the ecological integrity and wild character of the state forest system. Based on that analysis, in October 2010, then-Governor Edward G. Rendell signed a moratorium on leasing in state forests. Previously, the House of Representatives passed (by a 157-33 margin) a bill that would have established a three-year moratorium on leasing, but the Senate failed to act.
Now, Governor Corbett is reportedly poised to lift the moratorium.
That brings us to where we stand today, with one out of every three acres of state forest under the drill.
While environmental costs of drilling are well known, there are others. Pennsylvania is already burning the furniture to heat the house. The state’s environment, quality of life, and huge swaths of the state’s economy are all in grave danger should the state lease more of its forestland for gas drilling.
Fewer than 300 Marcellus wells have been drilled on state forestland so far, but gas development activities are already harming outdoor recreation opportunities along with the state’s second largest industry -- its $33 billion tourism economy. Forty percent of the state forestland in the Pennsylvania Wilds ecotourism region is already leased for gas development. More leasing will not only deepen these wounds; it will jeopardize the whole ecotourism initiative.
More leasing would also have devastating economic consequences for Pennsylvania’s forest products industry, which employs 90,000 Pennsylvanians. Working for 3,000 businesses found in every Pennsylvania county, they make up 10 percent of the state’s manufacturing workforce. This industry depends on the state forests' certification as sustainably-managed by the Forest Stewardship Council. FSC certification provides a market advantage for companies selling products for the rapidly growing green marketplace. State forests are the source of almost all of the state’s sustainably-harvested wood, and they comprise 88 percent of the certified-sustainable forestland in the Commonwealth. Additional large-scale natural gas drilling leases puts FSC certification, and all of its economic benefits, at risk [pdf].
There are potential political costs to more state forest leasing, too. According to two recent statewide polls, 72 percent of Pennsylvanians oppose any further leasing of state forestland, and 57 percent oppose all drilling in state forests.
Pennsylvania can’t afford any of these costs. The leasing moratorium for state forests should not be lifted or altered.