Before Fracking Forests, The People (May) Get Their Say

Categories Energy, Environment

This story was originally published July 29, 2014, on the journalism crowdfunding site Beacon Reader with the financial support of 50-plus donors. Support more reporting by this independent Truthsayer with a donation. Today!

By Josh Brokaw

WILLIAMSPORT – A dozen members of the Pennsylvania House Democratic Policy Committee visited Lycoming College on Monday afternoon to promote a bill that requires more public input, including a hearing, before state forest lands are leased for gas drilling. The seven panelists called on to testify before the committee, along with numerous commenting citizens, were happy to provide evidence for over three hours that they have plenty of cautions and concerns about fracking in state forests.

The committee gathered at the behest of Rep. Rick Mirabito (D-Williamsport), author of House Bill 2318, which requires that before any rights for “unconventional” oil or gas development underneath state forest lands are leased out, the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR) hold at least one public hearing and hold open a comment period when the public has access to detailed development plans and an environmental impact review.

Mirabito and his co-sponsors introduced the bill on June 6, in response to Gov. Tom Corbett lifting a moratorium on leasing the mineral rights underneath state lands that had been in place since Oct. 2010. Before former Gov. Ed Rendell signed that moratorium, some 130,000 acres of state lands were leased to gas drillers. (1)

Attendees of the House Democratic Policy Committee hearing on state forest leasing listen intently on July 28, 2014. Photo/Josh Brokaw

No additional leases on state lands will be signed by the Corbett administration until the lawsuit filed against the practice by the Pennsylvania Environmental Defense Fund (PEDF) is decided by the Commonwealth Court.

John Childe Jr., an attorney for PEDF, told the committee on Monday that he expects the case to be decided by the end of the year.

“Could this litigation extend long enough to leave the decision to another governor?” asked Rep. Greg Vitali (D-Havertown). “Do you think we can agree to extend this to the next administration, till about Jan. 20 of next year?” (2)

Testimony from the seven panelists, all hailing from groups critical of the gas industry, was unsurprisingly in favor of H.B. 2318 as a step towards greater accountability for government and industry.

“This bill should be embraced in a bi-partisan spirit of conservation and the democratic process,” said Robbie Cross, president of the Lycoming County-based Responsible Drilling Alliance. “The rush to drill that characterizes the present myopic approach by the gas industry and the present administration in Harrisburg would change to a more careful equation.”

Joanne Kilgour, director of the state Sierra Club chapter, and Curt Ashenfelter, director of the Keystone Trails Association, both emphasized in their testimony one impact that drilling might bring to Pennsylvania: less incoming cash. Kilgour cited statistics that state parks bring in $1.2 billion per year, and outdoor recreation at large is worth $21.5 billion to the state, along with 219,000 jobs. Hikers alone, according to Ashenfelter, spent $955 million in the year 2005.

July 28, 2014, from left: Joanne Kilgour; John Childe Jr.; Robbie Cross; Mark Szybist. Photo/Josh Brokaw

Rep. Mike Sturla (D-Lancaster) had the comment for panelists that he found it interesting the “notion that we were going to dump state-owned lands under the market for leasing” and drive the price of leases down for landowners.

“You have access to say, 60,000 acres of state forest land, pretty clear, pristine forest – you can get in there and go gangbusters,” Sturla said.

“It’s clear why operators like to drill in state forest land,” commented Mark Szybist, an attorney for PennFuture. “You have one owner instead of many, and you can deal with large unbroken stretches of land.”

Like the panelists, whom, whatever their personal politics, all gave statements on behalf of their organizations that were careful to say “we are for gas drilling if done responsibly,” Mirabito made sure to keep to the middle in his remarks.

“This is not an anti-gas bill and I have not been opposed to gas drilling in this community,” he said. “I hope the newspaper association and the local newspaper will see this is a bill about transparency and accountability.”

During public comment, people with concerns about the gas industry commented on the bill, as well as other possible future problems, like rumored new pipelines and the American government quashing patents for cold fusion and other clean energy technics. Some affirmed the bill as a small step on the right path, with others playing Cassandra and calling for much more.

For the affirmative view, there was David Kagan, a writer who lives in the Pine Creek Valley and has decried the loss of peace there that has accompanied the gas industry:

“This is more than necessary, I think it’s a moral imperative,” Kagan said. “When they started coming up Pine Creek first in 2008, we had no idea, we had no input at all. The general person who lived there did not know anything.”

For the not-enough view, there was Wendy Lynne Lee, a professor at Bloomsburg University, who compared the hearing process to the fatalism of Greek drama:

“The chorus exists only as a therapeutic device, to placate the audience for a future they can do nothing about,” Lee said. “Absolutely nothing in this bill requires DCNR, who didn’t even bother to come today, to take heed of that public comment.”
Mirabito invited dissenters to lay their views on him, while also reminding them of social realities:

“We’ve created a society that relies on energy, that relies on transportation energy, that relies on energy for heating homes … we in this country are 2% of the world’s population and we use 25% of the world’s energy. We shouldn’t kid ourselves about where that energy comes from now. Our energy comes out of Nigeria … one of our concerns in this caucus is that Pennsylvania is going to turn into a state where 50% of the people can’t use natural gas.”

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(1) That acreage includes about 25,000 acres in the Loyalsock State Forest known as the “Clarence Moore Lands,” after a former owner, a tract where DCNR does not own the mineral rights. DCNR says it also cannot control surface access – that is, where companies that hold leases may put their well pads – on about 7,000 acres of that land. What gas development will happen there, in a place which includes the swimming holes of Rock Run, was the subject of an informational hearing DCNR held in June 2013 at Lycoming College. An estimated 400 to 500 people attended, of which DCNR now says it has no official record. This meeting was referenced frequently on Monday. This story will come up again in my reporting.

(2) Vitali is here expressing optimism that the Democratic candidate for governor, Tom Wolf, will be sworn into office on that date. Wolf is currently showing a 20ish-point lead over Corbett.

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Josh Brokaw is an independent reporter based in Ithaca, N.Y.

Email josh.brokaw@truthsayers.org with tips, story suggestions, and gentle criticism.

Twitter: @jdbrokaw