Thursday, May 2, 2013

Sierra Club Testimony at the Democratic House Policy Committee Hearing on Loyalsock State Forest Gas Drilling


I would like to thank the Policy Committee for convening this public hearing on the matter of gas drilling in one of Pennsylvania's natural gems:  The Loyalsock State Forest.  Sierra Club and other conservation organizations have been working since September of 2012 to convince the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR) to hold public hearings on this matter.  We have largely been ingored.  It took more than six months before we even got an acknowledgement from DCNR Secretary Richard Allan to our letter, but have never gotten an agreement on a public hearing.   We have also appealed to Representative Ron Miller, Majority Chair of the House Environmental Resources and Energy Committee, to convene a formal public hearing into this matter.  To date, Chairman Miller has declined to hold a hearing, although he did travel to Lycoming County to attend an "invitation-only stakeholders' meeting" with DCNR.  And we are very appreciative of Representative Greg Vitali's efforts to open up the process concerning the gas drilling proposal in the Loyalsock State Forest.

As you will hear from other witnesses, DCNR has a unique ability to control the surface of the Loyalsock State Forest, regardless of who owns the gas rights below.  Unfortunately, it appears that DCNR refuses to acknowledge and exercise this authority, and is choosing to try to simply extract as much money from Andarko as they can.  We believe that DCNR should assert its legal authority and deny Anadarko access to the Clarence Moore tracts.  

As you may know, DCNR never announced that they were negotiating with Anadarko, the gas drilling firm, about allowing Andarko access to the Loyalsock State Forest.  In fact, it was hikers on the Old Loggers' Path who came across survey stakes driven into the ground who alerted us that something was happening in a much-beloved part of the Pennsylvania Wilds.  From the beginning, DCNR has operated in secret, negotiating with Anadarko Petroleum Corporation behind closed doors.  It is this tendency of the Corbett DCNR to eliminate public involvement in decisions about public lands management that is at the heart of our concerns. 

We note that more and more decisions are resulting in changes to long-standing DCNR policies, with no willingness or effort to consult the public.  Perhaps it is because the high-level appointees in the Corbett DCNR have no previous public lands management experience.  They did not come from a background of public service, but rather were political appointees.  Perhaps it is due to pressure from the Governor's office to generate money from our public lands.  This is in contrast to previous DCNR (and DER ) Secretaries who understood that the public should have a say in how our public lands are managed.    And that DCNR has an obligation to serve the public interest, rather than only special economic interests.

Other witnesses will describe the natural attributes that are at risk with the plans to allow gas drilling in the Loyalsock State Forest and specifically the Clarence Moore lands, the Old Loggers' Path and Rock Run.  I would like to contrast the approach to gas drilling of state forests by the Corbett administration's DCNR to the Ridge administration's DCNR.  While both  Republican administrations, their reaction to public concerns are markedly different. 

In 2002, The Ridge administration's DCNR announced plans to lease more than 500,000 acres of state forest land to gas drillers interested in exploiting the two to three mile deep "Trenton Black River" formation.  The planned lease area included major portions of what is today called the Pennsylvania Wilds, including the State Forest Districts of Elk, Sproul, Susquehannock, Tioga, and Tiadaughton.  This huge gas lease sale met swift and strong public opposition from those who used those public lands for fishing, hunting, camping, hiking, paddling and bird watching.  The lease sale threatened the emerging tourism industry of the region, as more people learned about the danger to their cherished lands.  Conservation organizations including Sierra Club banded together to call for a halt to the lease sale, and to open up the process to involve the public.  As a result, DCNR Secretary John Oliver ordered a halt to the lease sale, and convened a series of six public hearings to gather public input on the gas drilling proposal.   Secretary Olliver called the original lack of public involvement "an oversight". 

Those six hearings generated a total of 4,871 formal comments to DCNR.    As a result of the public input, DCNR made significant changes to the proposed lease sale, cutting it by more than half, and  reducing the number of individual tracts from 141 to 75.  The DCNR also significantly strengthened the lease requirements, incorporating public comments concerning set back buffers, and tightening waiver provisions.  "With these modifications in place, I believe the Department has made a good faith effort to deal with the public's concerns", said Secretary Oliver, as he addressed the House Environmental Resources and Energy Committee on June 25, 2002.

Contrast this to the track record of the Corbett administration's DCNR on the secretive Loyalsock State Forest gas drilling negotiations.  At no time did DCNR announce their intent to allow Anadarko to drill in the Loyalsock.  They had a series of closed-door meetings, while refusing to acknowledge their negotiations in response to formal letters from conservation organizations and local citizens.  Frustrated by DCNR's stonewalling, our coalition turned to legislators, including Representatives Garth Everett, Rick Mirabito, Ron Miller and Greg Vitali, requesting a formal hearing be convened by the House Environmental Resources and Energy Committee.  We asked them to pressure DCNR to open up their process, halt the negotiations and convene public hearings.  In the end, Chairman Miller declined to convene an Environmental Committee hearing, but apparently convinced Secretary Allan to hold a meeting.  That resulted in DCNR's "invitation-only stakeholders" meeting, specifically excluding the state-wide organizations who had been pressing DCNR to open up the process.

The closed door stakeholders meeting included a number  of local elected and appointed officials and a handful of conservationists.  Those in attendance continued to press DCNR to open up the process, and convene more formal public hearings.  In the meeting, we are told that Secretary Allan scoffed at taking public input, stating that "if we had a thousand people give us their comments, we wouldn't learn anything we don't know".  The local Williamsport Sun-Gazette, on April 5, described Secretary Allan's position on public input:  "Before the meeting took place, DCNR Secretary Richard J. Allan and State Forester Daniel Devlin said they chose to keep the group closed to control the conversation. Allan says DCNR has no policy - and no intentions - of holding public meetings on natural gas drilling on state forest lands.  'Its not something that we have ever done.  Its not something that we do.' he said".  People attending the stakeholders meeting complained that DCNR was not interested in hearing their concerns.  DCNR wanted to tell the stakeholders what they are plan to do.  Since that time, DCNR has held a "webinar" to explain certain facts.  

In addition to Secretary Allan claiming that DCNR had no policy to hold public meetings on gas drilling, which is in direct conflict with the Ridge administration's policy, other changes in policy are being made with no public involvement.  DCNR has had a long-time policy that they DO NOT lease gas rights they own under state parks.  This is important, since DCNR only owns about 15% of the gas rights under the state park system, while 85% are severed from the surface, and privately held.  However, with no public notice or input, DCNR has now changed this policy.   This policy change occurred in a private settlement just announced with Consol, the mining company that ruined Duke Lake dam at Green County's Ryerson Station State Park.  In exchange for Consol paying the state $36 million to repair the dam, DCNR will allow Consol to drill for natural gas from deposits the state owns, underneath Ryerson Station State Park.  This new policy was not disclosed by DCNR when they announced the settlement; rather it is buried in the fine print of the legal settlement documents   This new policy for DCNR is a clear violaton of the current moratorium on new gas leasing in state forests and parks, put in place by Governor Rendell.

When viewing the Corbett DCNR's approach to managing our public lands, the pattern is becoming clearer.  Rather than protecting the Commomwealth's natural treasures for future generations, Governor Corbett is directing DCNR to liquidate our assets for short-term gain.   Instead of engaging the public to seek input on the management of our public lands, the current approach is to meet behind closed doors, stonewall when questioned, and hope the media doesn't pick up on what is happening.  We cannot allow this approach to go unchallenged.

We urge the members of this Committee to consider passage of legislation that would compell DCNR engage the public in decisions related to the management of our public lands.  Many other states have Environmental Policy Acts that require state agencies to conduct an environmental impact study for decisions that have significant environmental effects.  This process includes a formal public input process, and a requirement that agencies respond to public comments. 

In addition, the General Assembly should adopt a natural gas severance tax, similar to what every other natural gas producing state has in place.  The current "impact fee" that was adopted as part of Act 13 in 2012 rasies much smaller revenues for the state, than a severance tax would raise.  Governor Rendell proposed, and the PA House passed a severance tax, only to see it die in the PA Senate.  The conservative Senate leadership instead forced the Rendell administration to fill the budget gaps by opening up the state forest system to new gas leasing.  We need to eliminate this pressure to use the state forest system as a cash cow to fill Governor Corbett's budget gaps. 

In the instance of the Loyalsock State Forest specifically, we urge you to do everything in your power to compell DCNR to stop the negotiations with Anadarko, and exercise their authority to prevent any surface disturbance.

Thank you.                    

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