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First Amendment
Auction of mineral rights on state-owned lands a done deal

Public hearings won't derail state park lease plan

Monday, June 10, 2002

By Don Hopey, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

The largest auction of publicly owned subsurface mineral rights in Pennsylvania history won't be stopped no matter what opponents say at a series of informational meetings now under way around the state.

Department of Conservation and Natural Resources Secretary John Oliver said he is committed to the 500,000-acre lease auction and won't withdraw it.

He reluctantly agreed to postpone the auction, originally scheduled for May 7-8, and hold six open house meetings in response to criticism that the public had no input into the plan to sell off natural gas drilling rights in Trenton-Black River formations. It would be the first large public land lease offering of that potentially lucrative formation which, at a depth of two to three miles, is five times deeper than the reach of almost all existing gas wells.

"It's a good idea and I'm convinced we can do it in an environmentally safe and responsible way," Oliver said at the first, sparsely attended meeting last month in Lock Haven, Clinton County. "If you look at what we've done historically, you would have to conclude that the impact is going to be minimal."

But opponents say that's an apples-and-oranges comparison. They argue the state has done a poor job of assessing the environmental impact of the deep-drilled wells on some of the state's wildest, most pristine publicly-owned lands. They cite the potential for well blowouts, explosions and fires, habitat destruction and fragmentation, stream sedimentation, groundwater contamination and impacts on recreation.

"These are publicly owned lands, not oil and gas company properties, and they should be treated as something special," said Jim Kleissler of the Allegheny Defense Project, a Clarion County-based environmental group that has fought logging and drilling in the Allegheny National Forest.

The last two public meetings on the gas leases are scheduled for today at the Wildwood Nature Center in Harrisburg and tomorrow at Ligonier Town Hall, 120 E. Main St., Ligonier. Both meetings will run from 3 to 8 p.m.

The public comment period ends June 15, after which the department will take a couple of weeks to prepare a comment response document. A decision on rescheduling the auction will be made after the review period but no later than July 31.

The auction would cover subsurface mineral rights under 141 tracts scattered through seven state forests and six state parks in Cameron, Clinton, Fayette, Huntingdon, Lycoming, Potter and Tioga counties.

Drilling, road building and pipeline construction would occur in state forests and, through the use of technologically advanced slanted or "directional" drilling from adjacent property, under state parks, Wild Areas and Natural Areas where it normally is not allowed.

The department established the drilling tracts based on requests from oil and gas companies over the last 18 months.

Theoretically, as many as 780 deep wells could be drilled on the 141 tracts, but the high cost of drilling so deep -- somewhere between $3 million and $8 million a well -- will likely limit the number to several dozen. Oil and gas industry publications have speculated that the Trenton-Black River formations in Pennsylvania will likely attract larger companies with the financial resources to drill to such deep targets.

The department, citing past policy, has refused to identify the oil and gas companies that have suggested tract locations, despite written requests from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and several environmental groups.

Some of those groups have raised conflict of interest questions about Oliver, whose statement of financial interests on file with the State Ethics Commission lists stock holdings with ExxonMobil Corp., Royal Dutch Petroleum Co. and FPL Group. FPL is an energy firm that is building a natural gas power plant in Delaware County.

Oliver also has royalty interests from gas wells owned by Vista Resources Inc. of Pittsburgh, Great Lakes Energy Partners of Hartville, Ohio, and Atlas Resources Inc. in Moon.

"From my point of view, anyone with this much investment in these holdings should recuse himself from making any decision on these leases," said Bill Smedley, executive director of Greenwatch and a Pennsylvania Environmental Network board member.

Oliver denies any conflict exists.

"It's nonsense. Ridiculous," he said. "My personal interests in no way, shape or form have anything to do with my support for this program."

Only 17 people attended the first public meeting, held on Election Day despite a request by environmental groups that it be rescheduled. Only one written comment was submitted.

"The [department] does a great job displaying its information and making presentations to the public, but what this is not is a public hearing where the public has an opportunity to provide comments that can affect the plan," said Dave Coleman of the Sierra Club.

The department's Citizen Advisory Committee has suggested changing the format to include a formal presentation on the lease proposal followed by a public question-and-answer session, but Oliver has refused to make the change.

Gerald Lacy, a Pennsylvania Trout board member, said a lot of public concern exists about how the drilling would affect watersheds and pristine natural areas in the state's north-central highlands, where many of the proposed lease tracts are located.

"We've seen a big increase in concern for watersheds that's been 30 years in coming and we need to take a lot more time to look at the impact of this, especially added to all the disturbances that are already there," Lacy said. "We need to be careful and the public wants more involvement."

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