Should we lease more state land to the gas companies?

Lots of things to be concerned about in the budget with natural gas. One is whether or not to tax the oil and gas industries for the gas they are taking from PA state land. The second is where the money from leasing the state land to gas companies should go. A good rule of thumb would be to put that money back into the counties and state forest land where the gas is being taken from. If nothing else this puts some funding and ability into DCNR, DEP and other local authorities to help with possible clean ups or contamination issues due to gas wells. The other option would be to put it back into the general fund of the PA budget.

By Tom Barnes, Post-Gazette Harrisburg Bureau

HARRISBURG — Some House Democrats want to amend the $27.9 billion state budget proposal to kill the idea of leasing more state forest land for natural gas drilling.

Such drilling “could devastate our state forests and the pristine streams that are in them,” Rep. David Levdansky, D-Forward, said yesterday. “There is no room for error in managing state forests. An error could haunt us forever. We would risk environmental scars and destruction just for short-term economic gain.”

Mr. Levdansky, chairman of the House Finance Committee, was joined by several colleagues at a news conference, calling for elimination of that revenue-raising idea, which is part of the 2009-10 budget proposal unveiled Friday by Gov. Ed Rendell and leaders of three General Assembly caucuses.

Mr. Levdansky said other legislators who weren’t at the news conference also oppose the forest-leasing idea. Leaders who crafted the budget last week expect to generate up to $100 million this year by leasing 200,000 acres of state forests in addition to the 600,000 acres already leased for natural gas extraction.

The forests sit atop huge underground areas of Marcellus shale, which contains valuable deposits of natural gas. To get the gas, large amounts of water have to be pumped under pressure into the shale, which can cause contaminated water to pollute underground water sources.

The new budget plan, which may be voted on next week, would take away the current authority of the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources to manage state forests, Mr. Levdansky complained. He also said the budget plan would shift $163 million from DCNR’s Oil and Gas Fund into the state’s general fund, so that money wouldn’t be available for improvements to state parks and forests.

Rep. Greg Vitali, D-Delaware, also criticized the proposed budget. He said it would cut the Department of Environmental Protection’s budget from $229 million last year to $173 million this year and hurt many important programs, including spraying to kill black flies and to fight the West Nile virus.

Other Democrats who oppose the forest-leasing idea include Reps. Steven Santarsiero of Bucks, John Siptroth of Monroe, Babette Josephs of Philadelphia, Bob Freeman of Northampton and David Kessler of Berks. If they all voted against the proposed budget, it would have difficulty passing the House.

That’s because House Republican leader Sam Smith of Punxsutawney said he’s sure that about 95 of the 97 Republicans now in the House will vote against the budget. (There are 99 total Republicans but two are away for a year on military duty.) Mr. Smith doesn’t like the $27.9 billion proposal, saying it’s $400 million too high.

If Mr. Smith is correct about the GOP votes, Democratic leaders would have to convince virtually all of their 104 members to vote for the budget. A bill needs at least 102 votes to pass the House.

Mr. Smith said, “It will be tough” to get that many Democrats to vote for the budget, which many groups are criticizing — either for spending too much, spending too little or raising too many taxes.

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