State House Sound Bites

Capitol reporter Mary Wilson covers Pennsylvania politics and issues at the Pennsylvania state capitol.

Lawmakers urge against drilling in state forest

Written by Mary Wilson, Capitol Bureau Chief | Apr 23, 2013 8:29 PM
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Old logging trails, streams, and a ghost town are some of the defining characteristics of a state forest that straddles three counties in the thick of Marcellus Shale country.

There's gas to be found below the Loyalsock State Forest, and at least one energy company trying to work out an agreement with the state to extract it. But what would otherwise be a typical tug of war between energy companies and environmentalists is getting snagged on a tangle of legal and ecological issues.

In the meantime, the man who may be the state House's most vocal environmentalist, Rep. Greg Vitali (D-Delaware) is urging the Corbett administration to block drilling in the publicly-owned forest.

"This wonderful area, which I had the opportunity to hike on April fifth, is threatened by proposed drilling by Anadarko," said Vitali at a press conference Tuesday. "And, um, it's a complicated legal situation."

He's not kidding about that. Anadarko Petroleum Corp. owns about half of what lies beneath 25,000 acres of the forest. But it doesn't have access to the surface - except on a smaller set of scattered parcels that also happen to be the forest's most ecologically sensitive.

The commonwealth began working on a special agreement to allow the energy company to access what it owns beneath while protecting the forest above.

Vitali points to the numerous state agencies with which Anadarko will need to cooperate to continue natural gas development "both immediately and in the next decade. So the governor does have leverage," said Vitali. "So we are asking he use that leverage to get a good result."

But Department of Conservation and Natural Resources spokeswoman Chris Novak says the state sees its control in less black-and-white terms than some environmental advocates would suggest.

"In the circumstance where the commonwealth does not own the mineral (subsurface) rights, we are required by law, by some legal decisions, to provide reasonable access to the owner, or to the person who leases those rights," said Novak. In this case, that owner or person is Anadarko. Novak said there's no timetable for finalizing an agreement with Anadarko about drilling in Loyalsock State Forest.

A storm of criticism from environmentalists has prompted the state to increase its public outreach on the issue.

The state is holding an online information session later this week about the proposed drilling and promising another public meeting sometime in the future.

Several weeks ago, it held a controversial invitation-only meeting with stakeholders.

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