Corbett adviser: It’s ‘myth’ PA can block drilling in Loyalsock State Forest

By Andrew Staub | PA Independent

A group of environmentalists and lawmakers gathered Monday to deliver a plea to Gov. Tom Corbett: Do everything in the state’s power to keep natural gas drillers from industrializing about 25,000 acres of the Loyalsock State Forest.

But even though the state owns the tract known as the Clarence Moore lands, it can’t just seal it off from drilling, said Patrick Henderson, Corbett’s top energy adviser. That’s because the mineral rights to the land belong to Anadarko and Southwestern Energy, and the state must give them “reasonable” access to drill there, he said.

The environmentalists that raised objections are just perpetuating the “myth” the state can simply tell drillers they can’t access the land, Henderson said.

“That’s not accurate. It’s not sensible. It would expose the citizens in Pennsylvania,” Henderson said. “Imagine the fallout if you simply deny somebody the right to access that which they own.”

OPEN FOR DRILLING?: Environmentalists want to protect part of the Loyalsock State Forest from expanded gas drilling.

The issue promises to become a politically charged issue in an election year, with state Rep. Greg Vitali, the Democratic chairman of the House Environmental Resources and Energy Committee, leading the call to halt Corbett’s plan for expanded drilling in state forest and parks.

Vitali hosted Monday’s press conference with several environmental groups and introduced a resolution that would urge Corbett to protect Loyalsock State Forest, which spans more than 114,000 acres in northern Pennsylvania.

The forest features panoramic views and the Old Logger’s Path, a 27-mile-long trail. Rock Run, considered among the most beautiful streams in the state, also meanders through Loyalsock. Curt Ashenfelter, executive director of the Keystone Trails Association, called the area a “recreational mecca.”

“Like the canary in the coal mine, if Anadarko destroys the wild character of the Loyalsock State Forest, no sacred ground is safe in Pennsylvania,” Ashenfelter said.

John Norbeck, vice president and chief operating officer of the conservation organization PennFuture, said allowing drilling in the forestland violates the Pennsylvania Constitution, which says the state’s public resources “are the common property of all the people, including generations yet to come” and the state “shall conserve and maintain them for the benefit of all the people.”

The state, Norbeck said, should stop any plans to industrialize Loyalsock. He also believes Pennsylvania has the power to keep drillers off a large portion of the Clarence Moore lands, which includes one tract of about 18,000 acres and a second smaller plot.

Norbeck pointed to a court ruling that found the previous owner’s right to use the surface of the larger tract to extract oil and gas expired in 1983. That gives the state more control over that land and it could “right a situation before it becomes a wrong,” Norbeck said, as those at Vitali’s press conference worried about well pads, pipelines and roads scarring the forest.

Henderson acknowledged the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources does have more “latitude” to direct surface activity on the larger tract, but disagreed with the interpretations from environmental groups.

“It’s been explained to them ad nauseam that this does not allow DCNR to keep them off the property,” Henderson said of gas drillers.

Trying to bar the companies from the larger tract could also simply push them into the smaller tract, home to the more sensitive habitats and fauna, Henderson said.

Instead, Henderson said the state could discuss concerns about protecting the forest surface with drillers and appeal to their corporate citizenship to try to avoid impacts in more sensitive areas. With the natural gas industry already operating in the area, some infrastructure might already be in place, he said.

Because the state doesn’t own the oil and gas rights, the Clarence Moore lands also do not fall under an executive order that allows expanded drilling in state forest and parks as long as it doesn’t impact the surface, Henderson said. That also means the state won’t receive royalties from any natural gas extracted from the area, he said.

Spokespeople from Anadarko and Southwestern didn’t return messages seeking comment about their plans for the Clarence Moore lands, but DCNR last week announced it will hold a 15-day public comment period once it completes a draft surface development management agreement with the drilling companies.

DCNR in a news release said it wants to mitigate noise impacts from compressor stations, minimize surface disturbance and limit the impact on hikers who use the Old Logger’s Path — with the possibility of relocating the trail if needed.

The department also indicated it will try to avoid or minimize activity in wetlands and habits of threatened or endangered species, as well as in the headwaters of the Rock Run waterway. It also wants to reduce fragmentation from pipelines, rights-of-ways and roads, according to a news release.

“Our main interest is protecting this resource. That is our mission,” DCNR Secretary Ellen Ferretti said in a statement. “It’s our job to balance the protection of habitat and recreational resources such as the Old Logger’s Path with the various uses of the state forest, including gas extraction.”

Staub can be reached at Andrew@PAIndependent.com. Follow @PAIndependent on Twitter for more.

Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and host of the Plain Talk Podcast which you can subscribe to by clicking here.

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