NEWS AND VIEWS

Pennsylvania extends drilling moratorium in its forests for 5 years

Don Hopey        Pittsburgh Post-Gazette      Sept 21, 2016

Pennsylvania’s five-year forest management plan nixes new oil and gas leasing and drilling in state forests and parks where the state controls subsurface mineral rights, and for the first time addresses climate change impacts.

The 234-page plan released last week by the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources details an oil and gas management policy that supports the public lands drilling moratorium ordered by Gov. Tom Wolf in January.

“DCNR felt that moratorium was appropriate and developed a position statement to guide our decision making over the next five to 10 years,” said Seth Cassel, division chief of the department’s Forest Resource Planning Section. “We don’t think it’s wise to do additional gas leasing on state forest and park lands now.”

According to the forest plan, the Forestry Bureau holds 123 oil and gas leases on a total of 301,000 acres, primarily in the north-central part of the state. The bureau estimates those leases are 16 percent to 20 percent developed, and that as many as 3,000 wells could eventually be drilled to fully develop the existing leases. Drilling can continue on those leases.

Of the 2.2 million acres of state-owned forest land, 1.55 million acres remain unleased, with a little more than 812,000 of those unleased in shale gas development areas.

“We recognize that while there is a lot of forest in shale gas areas that could be developed, we feel there’s also a lot of already leased land that’s not been fully developed and there’s already a lot of opportunity to do so,” Mr. Cassel said. “We want to use this time to monitor gas development impacts on other forest values.”

He said the moratorium on new oil and gas leases, though unpopular with the drilling industry, was supported by many of the more than 300 people who attended 12 public meetings held to gather input on the 2015 draft management plan, and also in the 4,800 comments on the plan received by the bureau.

The new plan, the first update of the bureau’s management document in nine years, also details the potential impacts of climate change on state forests and the role those forests can play in mitigating the changes. Mr. Cassel said the changing climate creates near- and long-term stresses on forests from invasive plants, pests and insects, to drought and extreme weather events, different frost cycles and longer growing seasons.

“It’s not just the warmer weather, it’s that things are more extreme. Very hot and very cold temperatures can impact the kinds of trees that will grow and also their vigor and health,” Mr. Cassel said.

The DCNR is working with the U.S. forest Service’s Northern Institute of Applied Climate Science to identify forest “vulnerabilities” and develop responses to those impacts.

“The issue,” he said, “has evolved to the point that people are recognizing there will be impacts.”

The forest management plan can be viewed at http://www.dcnr.state.pa.us/forestry/

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