With only the ever so faint brush of pen on paper to announce it, Senate Bill 367 became Act 147 of 2012, the Indigenous Mineral Resources Incentives Development Act. It effectively declared open for fracking all state-owned lands, including state parks (when a moratorium currently protecting them is lifted) and land owned or controlled by the state-run colleges and universities.
So far, fracking – the process of using water, sand and toxic chemicals to shatter deep shale and release its treasure of natural gas – has been allowed on nearly three-quarters of a million acres of state forests. State parks have been protected by a moratorium.
Until last week, John Norbeck, the award-winning head of the Commonwealth’s state park system, put up a strong defense against allowing fracking in the parks, which have been well-used by tourists and residents alike as opportunities to experience the state’s outdoors. (Generally, state forests are wild and relatively primitive; state parks have camp sites, swimming pools and other amenities.)
Under Norbeck’s direction, the state’s parks system had become a national model, won awards, and attracted record numbers tourists. Last week, Norbeck resigned his post,; he later said he was fired by Gov. Corbett over “differences in philosophy.”
Within days, DCNR Secretary Richard J. Allan had appointed 38-year state park veteran Dave Kemmerer to be acting director.
In January, Corbett fired DCNR Citizens Advisory Council Executive Director Kurt Leitholf. The department’s legislative liaison was appointed to become “advisor” to the civilian council. Paulette Viola, an ecology professor and 18-year volunteer member of the Citizens Advisory Council, also resigned recently.
Whether by coincidence or direction, it is clear opponents of fracking are being eliminated from positions of authority in state government.
And Act 147 may short circuit a pending state supreme court ruling that will declare whether natural gas is a mineral. An 1882 decision seems to say it is not. With Act 147, it doesn’t matter. The governor and the legislature have agreed: if there’s money in the ground beneath state owned land, including colleges, universities and state parks, let’s go get some.
The new law also appears to head off the student protests that are bound to occur – and on some campuses already have begun. With official opposition thus out of the way, the new law directs the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources to make its experience available to General Services.
DCNR spokeswoman Christina Novak said Monday, “DCNR has expertise and experience that we can share on leasing land and incorporating best management practices. The new law directs both DGS and DCNR to work together on implementing this law as necessary. We will meet with DGS in the near future to discuss how we may best be able to assist them with implementing this act.”
Corbett has consistently denied plans to drill in the state parks, and otherwise promoted what he has called “safe development of the Marcellus Shale.” Drilling on state-run college and university land has been promoted by the industry and by Corbett.
The state higher education institutions on which fracking takes place will, under Act 147, receive 60 percent of the royalties from gas extracted from beneath their buildings, stadiums and greenery. That is an attractive claim to institutions that took an 18 percent state budget hit two years ago and were flat-funded this year.
But one can be forgiven for being suspicious of claims that a Golden Goose is lurking beneath our land, making offers to share its wealth, at no cost or risk to those of us on the surface. And one might be no less suspicious of protestations that we “are not” drilling in state parks, while official posts are removed from fracking opponents and awarded to candidates of more agreeable persuasion.
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