Media types are always suspicious of press releases issued on Friday afternoons just before a holiday weekend.
So it was with skepticism that we checked out a Corbett Administration missive at 2 p.m. May 23, just before Memorial Day.
Its headline read, "Governor Corbett Issues Executive Order Protecting State Forest, Parks from Gas Leasing that Involves Surface Disturbance."
That certainly sounds noble. Who among us doesn't want to PROTECT Pennsylvania's forests and parks?
Problem is, according to environmentalists, Corbett's executive order is doing exactly the opposite of what its headline suggests. The Governor, in the last statement of the two-page press release, rescinded a Rendell-era moratorium on expanded gas drilling in state forests. It's creating more than a 'surface disturbance' with environmental groups.
"What Governor Corbett did last week was lift that moratorium and allow leasing of state forest land, and for the first time in the history of Pennsylvania, state park land for natural gas development," said John Quigley, former Secretary of the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. "I don't know how you can stretch the idea that going from no leasing to leasing, and including parks, is somehow more protective."
The Corbett Administration counters that is banning drillers from setting up shop within the boundaries of state forests and parks. The drilling will be deep underground and from adjacent properties. It hopes to collect $75 million, as Corbett announced in his February budget address. "It provides value to the taxpayer with no impact on the environment." said Corbett's energy executive Patrick Henderson.
"It's not DCNR's job to balance the state budget, not to be the cash cow to be milked or slaughtered," Quigley said. "It's DCNR's job to conserve and maintain and protect the public natural resources, protect the state forests, and protect the state parks."
Quigley should know. He was the DCNR Secretary under Governor Rendell when the moratorium was signed. Quigley says drilling, even from adjacent land, leaves a footprint in the forest or park.
"Consider the possibility of gas bubbling in the middle of a state park lake, consider a well blowout and fire where you have to clear a safety zone of a mile or so as happened in Greene County early this year. There are all kinds of risks."
It was Rendell and Quigley, who initially opened up Penn's woods to Marcellus drillers without the limits Corbett is now imposing. Henderson sees Quigley's criticism as political posturing and hypocritical. "He (Quigley) didn't have a crisis of conscience when he was leasing 130,000 acres while at DCNR," Henderson said.
Sources tell abc27 that Rendell ordered DCNR to provide $200 million to the state budget by leasing state land to Marcellus drillers. After getting the money, and just a few months before leaving office, Rendell then signed the moratorium halting additional drilling.
Quigley, who is now an environmental consultant, said the more he learns about drilling the more convinced he is that it's a danger. He admits his DCNR underestimated the harmful effects of drilling, and he wishes he'd done more to stop it.
"I said then, when I was secretary, at great personal risk, that it wasn't the right thing to do. I said it as secretary and almost lost my job because of it. It was a mistake then and an even bigger mistake now."
Quigley will testify at a Wednesday morning hearing in Commonwealth Court that attempts to stop Corbett from carrying out his executive order to expand gas drilling in state parks and forests.