Topic 1: For now, Pa. forests saved from drilling

Debate Question: Should drilling for oil in PA's forests be allowed?

Source: Inquirer Harrisburg Bureau

For now, Pa. forests saved from drilling
By Amy Worden

HARRISBURG - State officials yesterday suspended a plan to allow energy companies to drill for gas in the wilderness of northern Pennsylvania, bowing to protests that the public was shut out of a deal that environmentalists say would destroy one of the largest swaths of forest in the eastern United States.

The Department of Conservation and Natural Resources said it would postpone its auction next month of drilling rights on 500,000 acres - or one quarter - of state forest lands.

"We are postponing the auction to open up the process for more public comment," John Oliver, agency secretary, said one day after the agency's advisory council recommended the auction be delayed. "In hindsight, given the amount of acreage, we should have realized there would have been greater interest."

Oliver said the agency was under no obligation to notify the public about its drilling plans. The 141 parcels are in seven state forests in seven counties, primarily in the north-central section of the state.

The plan was made known earlier this month after an environmental group saw an advertisement for bids printed in a local newspaper.

A bipartisan group of critics, including legislators, environmental groups and gubernatorial candidates, condemned the agency for orchestrating the deal behind closed doors.

In a letter to Oliver, Republican Sen. Robert Jubelirer, whose Huntingdon County district is included in the drilling plan, wrote: "This decision was made without benefit of public comment or an analysis of the harm that could be caused to the environment."

State Rep. Camille "Bud" George (D., Clearfield) called for legislation requiring state agencies to produce an environmental-impact statement before allowing drilling and also requiring public notification of oil and gas lease offerings 90 days before the sale.

The two-day Internet auction, which had been scheduled to begin May 8, would have opened to drilling the largest section of land ever offered in Pennsylvania.

Within the designated areas lie the Pine Creek Gorge, also known as Pennsylvania's "Grand Canyon," and the vast Susquehanna River watershed.

"The northern part of the state is our state treasure," said Jim Kleissler, of the Allegheny Defense Project, a forest-preservation group in Clarion, Clarion County. "This is the most remote, most important forest area in the state. This plan targets the heart of it."

The Department of Conservation and Natural Resources said it would accept public comment until June 15; by July 31, it will decide whether it will reschedule the auction.

Environmentalists said they were pleased the public now would have an opportunity to respond to the plan but accused the agency of continuing to ignore the potential environmental damage from drilling.

"It's clear to us that the state should require a formal environmental-impact statement and public review and comment before making a decision of this magnitude," said Jeff Schmidt, director of the Pennsylvania chapter of the Sierra Club. "These are public lands. A public, state agency should have an obligation to provide all relevant information and then listen to the public and incorporate their concerns into land-management decisions."

Oliver said the agency would conduct its environmental reviews after the sites had been chosen.

"We feel our environmental-review process is more extensive than any other process anywhere," he said.

The state decision comes the same day the U.S. Senate passed an energy bill that rejects the Bush administration proposal to drill in an Arctic wildlife refuge. In New York, a plan to allow deep-well gas drilling in the Finger Lakes National Forest was abandoned several months ago after public outcry.

The drilling proposal in Pennsylvania threatens to break up one of the last remaining true wilderness areas in the East, comparable to the Adirondacks or the forests of northern Maine, environmentalists say.

"This issue resonates nationally because it affects some of the wildest land in Pennsylvania and the wildest land in the eastern United States," said Fran Hunt, who is the Middle Atlantic regional program director for The Wilderness Society. "An environment functions because all the pieces are together. If you break it up in chunks, you've lost the environmental integrity."

Oliver said the state could reap millions of dollars from the leases, which would allow energy companies to tap into a gas-rich formation, known as the Trenton-Black River, that stretches from New York to Kentucky.

Environmentalists say the new wells, plunging two to three miles into the Earth, would be under extremely high pressure and require a much more extensive network of pipelines than the 450 gas wells now operating in the state at shallower depths.

Since drilling on public land in Pennsylvania began 55 years ago, the state has collected $129 million in revenue from oil and gas production, much of it filtered back into conservation programs, officials said.