STATE COLLEGE — The Department of Conservation and Natural Resources has sharpened its definition of what will — and won’t — constitute a surface disturbance under Gov. Tom Corbett’s plan to open areas below public lands to natural gas extraction without cutting trees or moving earth on newly leased tracts.
Companies will not be allowed to build or expand roads, pipelines, compressor stations and well pads on new leases because those activities cause long-term changes to parks and forests, the state conservation agency said in a draft document released to an advisory committee on Wednesday.
But short-term impacts will be allowed as long as the public lands, plants and earth can be restored to their “normal state naturally,” the agency said. Examples of short-term impacts include seismic surveys and dust and noise from truck traffic.
“We are not saying that there will not be additional impacts,” DCNR’s deputy secretary for parks and forestry Dan Devlin said. “We are saying there will be no surface disturbance.”
DCNR also released draft criteria for how it will consider whether lease proposals fit the terms of an executive order Mr. Corbett signed in May that limits new leases to places drillers can reach from current well pads or adjacent properties without creating additional surface disturbances on public lands.
Companies will first have to commit to paying $3,000 an acre and an 18 percent royalty on the gas. They will also have to submit comprehensive development plans that lay out the lands and total number of acres they want to lease, an infrastructure map marked with roads, pipelines and well pads on adjacent properties, diagrams of where well bores will travel underground, and a rough timeline for development.
DCNR said it will not allow companies to do seismic surveys on parcels prior to signing a lease. Seismic surveys will be allowed once a lease is signed, but a company will first have to sign a separate agreement that controls where and how the work will be done.
DCNR will also not allow state park roads to be used for any oil and gas activities, and it will only allow state forest roads to be used with prior authorization from the forester in charge of the district.
Companies have not yet officially nominated parcels for lease, Mr. Devlin said, but they have expressed informal interest in drilling beneath public lands in southwestern Pennsylvania and, to a lesser extent, north-central Pennsylvania. He would not name particular parks and forests at this point, but said DCNR will release the information before leases are executed.
“There is interest in the southwest, where we haven’t traditionally had it,” he said. “They are interested in the wet gas down in the southwest.”
The Corbett administration agreed earlier this month not to sign any new natural gas leases under parks and forests until the Commonwealth Court has made a decision on the merits of a case brought by an environmental group over the state’s use of oil and gas revenue from public lands.
DCNR’s Chief Counsel Richard Morrison said Wednesday that he expects a decision will be made in that case around January. He said the agency can do everything to prepare for leasing, short of actually executing the leases, before the court rules on the case.
The state budget anticipates that DCNR will sign enough new natural gas leases under state public lands to bring in $95 million for the general fund over the next fiscal year.
Some members of DCNR’s natural gas advisory board questioned the agency’s asking price for new leases. Mr. Devlin said the terms are higher than the current market rate, but the agency considers its acreage a premium asset.
“It’s take it or leave it,” he said.
Also, on Wednesday, DCNR said it will allow the public to review and comment on a surface development agreement after it has finished negotiating with two drilling companies over access to a particularly prized area of the Loyalsock State Forest in Lycoming County where the state does not own the subsurface rights.
DCNR said it has not yet received a development plan from the companies for the 25,000-acre tract so it does not yet know when it will open the plan for comment. But it promised to publish notice of a 15-day public comment period once it has drawn up a draft of the final agreement.
Laura Legere: firstname.lastname@example.org