Corbett proposal would limit development based on interpretation of 'disturbance'

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. – A vocabulary quiz.

A company conducting a seismic survey for oil and gas exploration bores holes into the earth every 220 feet in a tract of state forest. It sets off small explosive charges in the holes and reads in the reflected energy waves a picture of the rock layers underground. Does that constitute a disturbance?

A Marcellus Shale drilling company uses a well pad in a state forest to harvest gas from one area, and it might be able to use the same pad to extract gas from another area but only as long as it is allowed to expand the pad. Would that count as a disturbance?

Is it a disturbance if a pipeline company digs up part of an existing right-of-way in a state forest to lay a new pipeline next to an old one?

The answers to these questions will help determine whether Gov. Tom Corbett succeeds in his proposal to raise $75 million by offering new oil and gas leases below public lands as long as they won't create new disturbances on the surface of state parks and forests.

The administration has said it will issue an executive order to authorize new leases only in cases where companies can access the deep gas-bearing rocks by drilling directionally from adjacent private lands or existing pads on public lands. Under the state’s definition, these non-surface disturbance leases mean "no new or additional physical disturbance will occur on the surface of state forest or park land as a result of this leasing activity."

Industry representatives at a meeting of the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources' natural gas advisory committee last week raised doubts that enough drilling proposals could fit the governor's terms, unless the definition of "disturbance" is flexible.

"If the leasing is restricted to not being able to make any adjustments whatsoever to the existing disturbance that has occurred on state forest land, you may not get any bids because it makes no sense," said Craig Mayer, vice president and general counsel at Pennsylvania General Energy, a Warren oil and gas company.

Restrictions on seismic surveys would also severely limit the potential for extraNewncting gas from new parcels, he said.

"If we can’t get seismic data on the new leases, we can’t drill."

Environmental and conservation groups have their own doubts about the terms of the governor's leasing proposal. They cited a voluminous DCNR report released last week on early results of its shale gas monitoring program, which offers evidence of surface disturbances changing public lands far from the edges of well pads.

"The suggestion that this industrial activity can be 'carefully managed' provides scant comfort to Pennsylvanians who frequent Penn's Woods," PennFuture president and CEO Cindy Dunn said in a statement, referring to the report. "Carefully managed industrialization is still industrialization, so the need for a moratorium on leasing of state forests and parks to drillers remains."

Among other findings, DCNR's monitoring report describes how each acre of forest that is cut to build a well pad can affect many acres of woods around its perimeter. DCNR found that shale gas development converted nearly 1,500 acres of forest into pads, roads and pipelines through the end of 2012, but that infrastructure influenced the wild character of 9,300 acres, changing them from more remote corners of the forests into more developed landscapes.

A similar ripple effect applies to other repercussions of new development, like erosion and invasive species, said Penn State University soil scientist Patrick Drohan, an advisory committee member.

"There could be indirect [impacts] that creep on with this new leasing," he said. "Even though there is no new surface development on the state lands, given what we know now from this monitoring report, there is the potential for non-DCNR land effects on DCNR land."

The governor's energy executive Patrick Henderson said the language of the executive order has not been finalized and the comments from the natural gas advisory committee were "very valuable."

The administration has not said when the executive order will be issued or which state lands might be leased. DCNR expects that companies will propose to drill under parcels near their current holdings and each project will be evaluated individually.

"Certainly, implementation of this new policy will rely upon the expertise, knowledge and good judgment of DCNR's professionals to ensure that Pennsylvania's natural resources are protected," Mr. Henderson said.

Laura Legere:

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