Corbett administration agrees to halt new natural gas leases under state parks and forests

The Corbett administration will not sign any new natural gas leases under state parks and forests until at least this fall, under a legal agreement with an environmental group that was announced Friday.

Under the terms of the settlement, the Pennsylvania Environmental Defense Foundation agreed to drop its push for a temporary injunction to block both new gas leases and any further transfers from a special conservation fund that has been tapped to finance the daily operations of the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources in recent years.

In return, the state agreed not to sign new leases until the Commonwealth Court has made a decision on the merits of the larger case, which began in 2012. The parties are scheduled to finish filing briefs on the issues in September with oral arguments set for October.

"Without this settlement, DCNR's capacity to preserve Pennsylvania's natural treasures would have been decimated," Gov. Tom Corbett said in a statement. "We cannot allow our commitment to protecting Pennsylvania's state parks and forests to be held hostage during the duration of this lawsuit."

The environmental group's attorney, John Childe, said the budget signed by Mr. Corbett last week has made the state's parks and forests agency "almost entirely dependent" on a special account, known as the Oil and Gas Lease Fund, that is funded by oil and gas lease payments and royalties from drilling on state lands.

The fund was created in 1955 to be used only for conservation, recreation and flood control projects at the direction of DCNR, but during the Rendell and Corbett administrations it has been used for other purposes — such as balancing the budget and funding DCNR's operations — as the account swelled with income from Marcellus Shale drilling.

The state‘‍s new budget allocates $73 million for DCNR operations from the Oil and Gas Lease Fund, but only $15 million from the general fund.

"Should the court have enjoined the use of the oil and gas lease funds, DCNR would be left without the ability to operate for the next year, and our parks and forests would have had to close down," Mr. Childe said in a statement. "PEDF is bringing their case to support DCNR's ability to protect our parks and forests, not to shut them down."

The environmental group wants the state to use the money in the fund to preserve the state's natural resources and restore the forests where oil and gas is already being extracted.

The state budget anticipates that DCNR will sign enough new natural gas leases under state parks and forests to bring in $95 million for the general fund over the next fiscal year.

An executive order limits those leases to places drillers can reach from current well pads or adjacent properties without creating additional long-term disturbances to the surface of the public lands.

The state said it will continue to work to prepare for leasing of parks and forests but not take any final action until the Commonwealth Court makes a final decision on the case.

Laura Legere:

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