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Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Pa. game commission approves expansion of natural gas drilling on state game lands

HARRISBURG, Pa. — The Pennsylvania Game Commission has expanded the scope of leasing state-owned hunting lands for harvesting natural gas from the lucrative Marcellus Shale formation, this time netting more than $18 million.

The money helps a financially strapped agency that has cut back programs, such as raising pheasants for small-game hunting, while going a dozen years without an increase in the hunting license fees that are its primary source of support.

About two-thirds of the lease money is payment for the extraction of natural gas from beneath game lands in Bradford and Lycoming counties in northern Pennsylvania by way of wells that would be drilled on adjacent, privately owned land. Another lease on game lands in adjoining Tioga County will allow up to three well pads — each of which can host multiple wells — and pipeline construction.

Marcellus Shale drilling involves blasting chemical-laced water into the ground, a procedure called hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. Critics say fracking could poison water supplies, but the gas drilling industry says it's been used safely for decades.

Ted Onufrak, president of the 90,000-member Pennsylvania Federation of Sportsmen's Clubs, said most of his members are comfortable with the expansion of Marcellus Shale drilling as long as the Legislature and governor's office give the game commission the resources to stay on top of the activity.

"If you've got one (commission) land manager in charge of two counties, and first there's 20 wells and then there's 60 wells, that's a lot to ride herd on," Onufrak said. "They are going to need some additional staff."

The new leases bring the agency's haul from the Marcellus Shale to at least $19 million, game commission officials said. Royalties are also beginning to trickle in from the first Marcellus Shale wells that are producing gas, commission officials said.

The money stays with the game commission, which can use it to buy land or pay for its day-to-day operations. A large chunk of the more than $300 million raised by leasing Pennsylvania's state forest land for Marcellus Shale drilling has been tapped by the Legislature to help wipe out state government deficits.

The commission does not view gas drilling income as a replacement for the lack of an increase in the $20.70 adult resident hunting license fee, which the agency has sought from the Legislature since 2004, spokesman Jerry Feaser said Wednesday.

Feaser also said the commission is not under additional pressure to lease game land because of the Legislature's refusal to raise fees. He pointed out that when the energy industry's pursuit of the Marcellus Shale began in earnest in 2008, companies asked the commission to lease its entire land holdings in the northeastern corner of the state, which it has not done.

"But again, we need to find a way of continuing to fund the programs and projects that the public has come to expect from the game commission," Feaser said.

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Pa. game commission approves expansion of natural gas drilling on state game lands