State Rep. Greg Vitali



Vitali bill to protect state forests from more Marcellus gas drilling advances


HARRISBURG, March 24 State Rep. Greg Vitali's H.B. 2235, which would put a five-year moratorium on additional state forestland being leased for natural gas drilling and exploration, was approved by the House Environmental Resources and Energy Committee today with a 16-9 vote.


"This vote was an important step in the process," said Vitali, D-Delaware. "I was pleased to see my bill had bipartisan support. I would like to see the full House vote on it when we return to session in late April and hopefully pass it over to the Senate."


Vitali said he decided to introduce a five-year moratorium to give the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources enough time to assess the impact of drilling. He said there are currently a few natural gas wells in state forests, but that number is expected to reach several thousand.


"What we don't know is what the cumulative impact will be," Vitali said.


"I was glad to support Representative Greg Vitali's moratorium on leasing any more of the state forests for gas and oil drilling," said state Rep. Kate Harper, R-Montgomery. "The 'wait and see' period will allow us to fairly assess the effects and damage to our state forests."


State Rep. Garth Everett, R-Lycoming, said he's not sure if a five-year moratorium is too long, but supported the bill. "I'm in favor of us taking a time out to assess," Everett said.


Vitali introduced the bill earlier this year in response to a proposal negotiated during last year's budget agreement to raise revenue for the 2010-11 fiscal year by leasing more state forestland to drillers. The appropriations bill passed by the House Tuesday assumes $112 million in revenue from state forest leases.


State Rep. David R. Kessler D-Berks, said it's not worth risking damage to state forests that could take a decades to heal. "We are talking about a very minute fraction of the budget," Kessler said.

State Reps. Tom Houghton, D-Chester, and Tim Seip, D-Schuylkill/Berks, also voted for the bill, saying the state is in competition with private landowners who want to lease their property for drilling.


"Essentially, DCNR is Wal-Marting," Houghton said. "They are charging 20 percent less for land leases."


Vitali's bill also would require DCNR to issue a report every year to the governor and legislature about the impact of current natural gas exploration and drilling on state forests. The state has already leased 692,000 acres of state forestland to natural gas drilling companies.


Vitali suggested a severance tax on natural gas drilling or a similar fee -- which other major natural gas producing states levy, but Pennsylvania budget negotiators refused to consider last year -- would be an appropriate revenue option.