Monday, February 8, 2010

Breaking: Rendell rumored to be considering unilateral leasing of even more state forest for drilling

Governor Rendell is rumored to be considering directing the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR) to lease more land for Marcellus Shale gas drilling, even before the 2010-2011 budget, which he proposes tomorrow, passes.

"The fear is that governor will lease out more land in the spring," said State Representative Greg Vitali (D-Delaware). "The governor does not need legislative approval to lease out more land for drilling. He could do it tomorrow."

Vitali has sponsored a bill that would impose a moratorium on further leasing of state forest for drilling.

Some background:

For the past few weeks, rumor had it that the four main caucuses of the General Assembly had made a closed-door agreement to require DCNR to authorize the lease of even more forest land for Marcellus Shale gas drilling to the tune of $180 million.

As I reported in this week's column, Man Overboard ("Uh-oh" 2/3/2010), the legislature included a similar – and totally unprecedented – clause in last year's budget, requiring DCNR to lease $60 million worth of state forest, effectively usurping DCNR Secretary John Quigley's job of determining himself what and whether to lease:

For years, Gov. Ed Rendell and legislators have rubbed their hands in anticipation of this windfall. And during the 2009 budget wars, they did something completely unprecedented: Lawmakers ordered the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR), which oversees state forests, to lease land to gas drillers to the tune of $60 million — which the state would keep.

That decision ignored the advice of former DCNR Secretary (and current Philly Parks and Rec czar) Michael DiBerardinis, who in a March 2009 memo warned that too much leasing would "scar the economic, scenic, ecological and recreational values of the forest," and that "a rush to drill threatens the certification of our state forests as sustainably managed."

They did it anyway.

Governor Spokesman Michael Smith confirmed in a phone call with CP last week that Rendell would indeed seek $180 million from "gas drilling revenues of some sort" - but whether that amount would include a possible proposed tax on drilling or include the leasing of state forest – he declined to specify.

That, he said, would be up to the legislature.

But maybe not. If the rumor's true (the governor's office has not yet responded to a call for comment), the Governor may decide to lease state forest for drilling all by himself – effectively letting legislators who might face opposition on such a vote off the hook.

Currently, one-third of all state forest land has already been leased for drilling. And while thousands of wells are expected on the land already leased, only three are operational.



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