Pennsylvania’s governor suggests lifting the state’s ban on fracking in state forests. Though it could increase revenues for the state, opponents say the environmental costs are too high.
In 2010, the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources found that the state could not lease any more forest land without severely impairing the ecologically-fragile integrity of the ecosystem. The report indicated that expanded fracking of the region would violate the mission of the Forestry Bureau, which is “to ensure the long-term health, viability, and productivity of the Commonwealth’s forests and to conserve native wild plants.”
At that time, the state was leasing 700,000 of the state’s 1.5 million acres of state forest land that sits on the Marcellus Shale for hydraulic fracturing.
During his last year in office, former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell (D) considered the DCNR’s recommendation and declared a moratorium on any new leases on Pennsylvania state park property. Though Rendell had previously taken the position that bans on fracking are economically detrimental, in 2010, he argued, “Drilling companies’ rush to grab private lands across the state has left few areas untouched by this widespread industrial activity.”
“We need to protect our unleased public lands from this rush because they are the most significant tracts of undisturbed forest remaining in the state,” said Rendell from a prepared statement.
In the three years since the establishment of the moratorium, Pennsylvania — due to exponential growth in fracking the Marcellus and Utica shales — has grown to become the third-largest gas-producing state in the Union, with natural gas extraction constituting a significant portion of the state’s post-Great Recession economy.
With mineral rights owners of the state’s forest lands clamoring to sign up for leases, the state, which only owns surface rights to most of the state forest, is finding itself in a tug-of-war.
Earlier this year, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett (R) introduced a state budget that suggests opening the protected 800,000 acres of state forest to fracking. Estimating that the expansion could raise as much as $75 million a year, such an expansion would move Pennsylvania up to the second-largest gas-producing state.
The move is being met with resistance. On Thursday, activists from Marcellus Shale Earth First! blocked the single road access for the Anadarko’s fracking operation in the Tiadaghton State Forest. Locking themselves to blocks of concrete in the road, the activists were able to stop workers from getting to the well pad for six hours, while a dozen activists rallied at Anadarko’s corporate office in Williamsport.
“The public lands of Pennsylvania belong to all Pennsylvanians,” said Michael Badges-Canning, a retired school teacher and protester. “It is my obligation as a resident of the Commonwealth and a grandparent to protect our wild heritage, our pristine waters and the natural beauty for my grandchildren.”
Advocates for expanding gas leasing in the state’s forests argue that the impact to the ecology would be minimal. According to Patrick Henderson, Corbett’s deputy chief of staff for energy issues, there will be an executive order banning new leasing that disturbs the forest’s surface. The new drilling would be horizontal, meaning that — radiating from an established tap — hydrofracking miners would frack for dissolved gas horizontal to the surface. In this way, one tap can surface hundreds of acres of shale.
It also means that, should the state oppose such drilling, but the owners of the mineral rights for a certain portion of the state forest give permission, the fracking company could frack that part of the state park without obtaining permission from, or offering compensation to, the state.
Conservationists object to the notion that the state intends to use the proceeds for the general fund and not conservation programs. There is also skepticism regarding the idea that such drilling would be truly impact-free.
“More drilling always involves more road construction, more pipelines, more truck traffic,” said John Hanger, a Democratic gubernatorial candidate and former state environmental regulator.
The safety of fracking is being passionately debated. A December report from the Center for American Progress found that fossil fuel extraction from public lands emits 4.5 times the carbon emissions than the non-mined public lands are capable of absorbing. This is creating a severe imbalance of carbon emissions that may be impossible to rectify without a move to make more public lands exempt from mining.
Questions of the high use of water for fracking operations, fracking chemical spillage and the possibility that the fracturing of the bedrock is increasing the frequency of earthquakes have also led a large portion of the public to look with suspicion at the controversial drilling method.