If the state budget negotiators have their way, the core of what makes Pennsylvania, Pennsylvania – our forests, which gave us our very name – will be destroyed. All because our elected officials are unable to stand up to the million dollar lobbyists of the gas and oil industry.
It all started when Gov. Rendell released his original budget, way back in February. As part of the austerity budget, Rendell said that these bad economic times called for new sources of revenue. And one of the sources Rendell was offering was to charge a severance fee on the natural gas that was being extracted from the Marcellus Shale formation.
This was hardly a radical stance. Every other major gas-producing state has such a fee, including the radical outposts of Texas, Louisiana and Arkansas. And the multi-national corporations who dominate the drilling industry happily pay the fee in all those other states. So the severance fee was a no brainer, at least initially. The only disagreement was where the money would go – all to the general fund, or with some reserved for the local communities that “host” the drillers, the environment, and our fish and boat and game commissions.
But that was a million dollars ago. Once the tassel-shoed lobbyists of Chesapeake Energy, Range Resources, Conoco Phillips and other drilling-related business interests got their sticky fingers into the budget negotiations, suddenly these gas drillers were an “infant industry” and any severance tax would kill them as sure as a stake through their cold hearts. It turns out that the lobbyists were really good at their jobs. When the doors to the backroom blew open, the budget proposal not only had no severance fee, it required the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR) to give a sweetheart deal to the industry, opening up huge swaths of our state forest to drilling.
And what a sweetheart deal it is. With natural gas prices at a record low, DCNR may well be forced to sell drilling leases in our state forest lands at rock bottom prices. And not just a few leases, either. Because the proposed budget relies on drilling in our state forests to bring in $65 million in just the first year, and $180 million next year, as many as 200,000 acres would have to be leased out, just for the drilling pads and immediate area.
What does that mean in real trees? Of the 2.1 million acres of state forest land, only 1.5 million are within the Marcellus Shale region. More than 660,000 of those acres are already available for drilling and 595,000 are environmentally sensitive areas that cannot be leased. That only leaves approximately 225,000 acres of state forest land that could be leased. So leasing 200,000 acres would mean very few trees would be left standing.
The actual amount of forest disturbed would actually be much greater. Building drilling pads means cutting roads through the forest – roads to be used by hundreds of trucks hauling the millions of gallons of water the special deep drilling and rock fracturing needs to reach the Marcellus Shale gas. And pipelines must be built across the forest to carry the gas to market.
So the state forest will soon look more like the state checkerboard, with a few trees separating the drilling operations.
But just turning our state into No-Sylvania isn’t the end of the mischief the budget negotiators have planned. Leasing the state forest to the gas industry will not bring in enough money to make up our budget shortfall. For that, the negotiators are turning to the folks with really deep pockets: bingo players and concert goers. The budget proposal calls for new taxes not on the multi-national gas companies, but on small games of chance – like the bingo games the local volunteer fire departments hold to raise money, and on theatre and concert tickets. In short, the folks without lobbyists.
This plan to destroy our forests and rob the poor to protect the rich multi-national gas industry can be stopped, by only with enough citizen outrage that the legislators turn this bad deal down. All in all, that would be better than having to come up with a new name for our state.
(PennFuture is a statewide public interest membership organization, founded in 1998.)