Governor Tom Corbett, eyeing an out of whack budget that's due in a month, wants to expand gas drilling underneath state forests and parks to generate $75 million.
The Pennsylvania Environmental Defense Foundation and other environmental groups want to stop him and went to Commonwealth Court Wednesday seeking an injunction.
Its attorney cited the Pennsylvania Constitution, Article 1, Section 27, which states: "The people have a right to clean air, pure water, and to the preservation of the natural, scenic, historic and esthetic values of the environment. Pennsylvania's public natural resources are the common property of all the people, including generations yet to come. As trustee of these resources, the Commonwealth shall conserve and maintain them for the benefit of all the people."
Attorney Joe Childe pressed the point that state lands belong to all Pennsylvanians, not governors in search of a budgetary boost.
"Basically, this is a struggle between what the governor's trying to do: balance his budget, and what we're trying to do: save our natural resources," Childe said.
It was Governor Rendell who expanded drilling in state forests in 2008 and again in 2010. He extracted $200 million and then put a moratorium on additional leasing. Corbett, as he promised in his February budget address, recently lifted the moratorium. Corbett says that, unlike Rendell, he'll require that drilling not occur inside the boundaries of forests and parks. Drilling would occur deep underground from adjacent properties.
But environmentalists insist there will still be fallout in the forests.
"There are impacts and risks to air, water, noise, esthetics, and recreation," said John Quigley, former DCNR Secretary under Rendell when drilling was expanded in Pennsylvania. "And those impacts don't know boundaries. They can spill over regardless of where the well is located."
Even though it happened on his watch, Quigley now says it was a mistake to expand drilling. He says roughly 700,000 acres of Pennsylvania forests are currently leased and the state doesn't really know the impact its having.
"To pile on and do additional leasing when we're only beginning to understand the impacts on the state forest is certainly unwise," Quigley said.
But the governor desperately needs revenue for a state budget that's due June 30 and estimated to be a billion dollars in the red. Environmentalists didn't finish calling witnesses in Judge Kevin Brobson's courtroom Wednesday and the hearing was continued until Monday.
The state will then make its case and a relatively quick ruling is expected from Brobson given the looming budget. But Corbett, for now, is free pursue expanded drilling unless and until the court orders a halt.
"No matter how much money is at stake the principle of preserving our heritage is also at stake," Childe said.
The governor's office declined comment for this article, preferring to let the legal proceedings speak for themselves.