PA: Surprise: PF&BC OKs gas-leasing program

Harrisburg – The Pennsylvania Fish & Boat Commission has
spent a lot of time over the last two years surveying streams,
lobbying lawmakers and reaching out to the public for help in
monitoring the impacts of Marcellus shale gas development on the
state’s environment.

Now, it’s preparing to work with – and take money from – those same
drillers.

At a special meeting in Harrisburg March 7, commissioners adopted a
natural-gas leasing program with an eye to selling the Marcellus
gas that lies under its 43,000 acres of property statewide.
Commissioners also adopted a water-access program that will allow
the agency to sell water from its lakes to gas drillers.

Together, the plans are meant to “minimize environmental im-pacts
while maximizing revenues.”

“We have to be good stewards, not only of the water in our lakes,
but of the gas under our lakes, because we hold that in trust,”
said John Arway, executive director of the commission.

“I believe we would be irresponsible if we didn’t do this.”

The programs are a reflection of reality, too, added commission
Vice President Bob Bachman, of Lancaster County. Many
commission-owned properties are surrounded – or soon will be – by
gas development.

That’s left the commission in the position of having to partner
with the drillers or risk getting no return on resources it owns,
he lamented.

“Marcellus shale is here – there isn’t anything the Fish & Boat
Commission can do to make it go away,” Bachman said. “The question
is, what can we do that’s in the best interests of the
resource?”

Turning those drillers away would not prevent any wells from going
in, but in all likelihood would have allowed drillers to siphon off
commission-owned gas anyway, added Brian Barner, deputy director
for administration of the commission.

“We’re not adding to the problem,” Arway said. “This is just
understanding that this is going on around us and we need to either
be part of this or we’re going to be impacted negatively, at least
on the financial end.”

Still, several commissioners said reconciling themselves to vote
for the programs was not easy. Commissioner Bill Sabatose, of Elk
County, called it a “tough decision.”

Commissioner Len Lichvar, of Somerset County, meanwhile, said the
board’s hand was essentially forced by state lawmakers who opened
the state to drilling before it was ready and have failed to enact
an impact fee on drillers.

“Both of these failures compel us as an agency to control our own
destiny in both oversight and income generation within our ability
to do so and we will,” he said.

That wasn’t enough for commissioner Warren Elliott, of Franklin
County. He was the only commissioner to vote against the
gas-leasing program and one of two – together with Commissioner Ed
Mascharka of Erie County – to vote against the water program.

“I have a fundamental concern with the Pennsylvania Fish & Boat
Commission contracting with and receiving funds from companies that
it has regulatory oversight and enforcement powers over,” Elliott
said.

Mascharka said his opposition to the water program is that he’s not
sure the technology exists to tell whether it’s harming anything or
not.

The programs are not the result of the commission actively looking
for drillers or opportunities to make money, Arway said. Rather,
gas companies doing drilling all around its lands came “knocking on
our door,” he added.

Drillers have already asked about accessing the gas under Donegal
Lake in Westmoreland County and the already-drained Dutch Fork Lake
in Washington County, for example, he said.

Partnering with them will have benefits to anglers and boaters, he
said.

Arway and Barner admitted they could not yet estimate how much
money the commission might make through the gas and water programs.
But they know where it’s going.

Arway said the top priority will be to use the money for repairs on
high-hazard dams around the state. The commission currently has a
$36 million backlog of repairs at those dams, at least two of which
– Upper and Lower Hereford Manor in Beaver County – are scheduled
to be breached this spring because there’s no money to bring them
up to Department of Environmental Protection safety
standards.

“Absent this, we don’t have any other alternatives for repairing
these dams,” Arway said.

John Ball, president of the Hereford Manor Lake Conservancy and
Watershed Group, which has been fighting to save the two lakes for
years, was thrilled to hear of the potential funding.

“If all of this is true, and people mean what they said, this could
be a huge breakthrough for funds for Hereford Manor Lake,” Ball
said.

The money could help arrest an otherwise gloomy picture, too, Arway
added. He noted that fishing license sales have been trending
downward for decades. The commission sold nearly 1.2 million
licenses in 1990, at its peak. It sold just 840,000 last
year.

Letting this opportunity to earn revenue go by – which could mean
the loss of those high-hazard dams – could exacerbate that
trend.

“If we lost those fishing and boating opportunities, that slope on
the license curve is going to get even steeper,” Arway said. “I
think this is a way either to reserve what we have or maybe even
enhance it.”

Those benefits will be “transparent” in that they should be accrued
without anglers and boaters even noticing any impacts of drilling,
he added.

The gas-leasing program prohibits the construction of wells or the
location of other drilling equipment on commission property, for
example. And the water program will require drillers to pipe water
off site, rather than back trucks up to a lake to get water, he
said.

They’ll be limited in what they can take and when they can take it,
too. Gauges will be installed so that when lake levels reach a
certain point, withdrawals must stop.

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