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Thursday, August 8, 2013

Will the public lands be conserved in the oil and gas boom?

The Center for American Progress (CAP) has issued a new report on protecting America’s public lands for future generations amid the current oil and natural gas boom.  The report is essential reading.

A Blueprint for Balance focuses on the challenges and opportunities that the oil and gas boom poses for America’s public lands. Currently, the report states, 38 million acres of taxpayer-owned land are under lease to oil and gas companies for drilling. That figure does not include public lands owned by the states. Here in Pennsylvania, for example, about 700,000 acres of Pennsylvania’s 2.2 million acre state forest is available for gas exploration (see more here), and the Commonwealth does not own the mineral rights on about 80% of state park land.

How wisely these publicly-owned lands are used, managed, and conserved in this new energy era affects our environment, economy, and quality of life.  The report states:
The most important question facing the oil and gas industry, policymakers, and stakeholders is not whether the United States can continue to expand domestic oil and gas production in the near to mid-term but how it will do so in a manner that is economically sustainable, environmentally sound, and publicly supported. In particular, the stability and longevity of the oil and gas boom hinges on whether the Obama administration and Congress can adequately address carbon pollution, air pollution, and water pollution; growing public distrust of hydraulic-fracturing practices; prevention and preparedness for catastrophic oil spills; worker-safety concerns; revenue collection on behalf of taxpayers; loss of open space and wildlife habitats; and other health, safety, and quality-of-life issues.
The authors could have been talking about Pennsylvania when they wrote: 
The current oil and gas boom, however, has pushed drill rigs to the edge of, and in many cases into, local communities, prized hunting habitats, national parks, and watersheds that provide drinking-water supplies. As a result, business owners, city councils, county commissions, sportsmen, and citizens from across the political spectrum are expressing growing concern over the reality that without wiser policies, better planning, and stronger oversight from regulators, the oil and gas boom will cost them their way of life and the lands, water, and wildlife they want to protect for future generations.
What should be done to protect the public trust?

CAP’s report calls for striking a balance between the protection of public lands for future generations and oil and gas drilling, and offers five recommendations. I list them below, along with some examples of the kinds of actions that CAP recommends that were taken or have been called for in Pennsylvania: 

  • Protect public lands for future generations. This is the most basic duty. During my tenure as Secretary of PA DCNR, I was ordered to lease state forest land for gas exploration to help balance the state budget, and voiced concern about it at my professional peril. My boss, Governor Ed Rendell, understood the risks, and our responsibility to protect the public trust.  He asked me to meet the unfortunate fiscal goal with minimal impact to the public lands.  I worked with the women and men of DCNR to understand and minimize the potential impacts of the mandated leasing. I worked with my former colleague, then-PA DEP Secretary John Hanger to enact (for a time) additional protections for state park and forest land that would be drilled. I ordered the development of best management practices and a comprehensive monitoring program for gas development on state forest lands. And I worked with John Hanger to write the moratorium on further state forest leasing that Governor Rendell signed in 2010, and which remains in effect. 
  • Provide taxpayers a fair return by increasing federal rentals and royalty rates. When I was Secretary of DCNR, I increased the public’s royalty rate by 50% - from 12% in some cases to 18% for new leases.
  • Pay back the land by establishing a mitigation fee to help offset the impacts of drilling, and dedicate a portion of revenues from oil and gas development on public land to a new conservation fund – something I have long-advocated for in Pennsylvania.  

The Federal and state governments have a duty to conserve land held in public trust for future generations.  It's a duty nowhere more beautifully expressed that in Article I, Section 27 of Pennsylvania's state Constitution:
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.
But in our democracy, our government is ultimately us.  

Will we live up to our responsibility to future generations in the new energy era?

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