Game Commission explains gas, oil leasing

PENNSDALE – About 20 sportsmen came out Wednesday to learn more about the state Game Commission’s land leasing practices for oil and gas companies during an informational meeting held by the Sportsmen Alliance for Marcellus Shale Conservation at the Pennsdale Civic Center.

Barry Zaffuto, director of the commission’s northcentral region office, and Mike DiMatteo, chief of environmental planning and habitat protection for the commission, were on hand to explain leasing practices in more detail and address the public’s concerns.

DiMatteo explained that the commission’s first mission is to protect habitat and wildlife but noted that it is forced to operate more like a business because it does not receive tax dollars.

“Therefore, while mineral and oil and gas recovery are secondary missions, we have to continue to be open to those opportunities,” DiMatteo said.

He explained that the commission hopes to encourage habitat improvement through natural resource recovery and cited reclaiming abandoned mine sites as one example of the practice. However, he admitted that the commission has little power when it comes to tracts of land where they only own surface rights.

“There are places where PGC owns the surface rights but not the subsurface rights. In that situation, we can recommend and work with companies to try and help them implement best management practices, but we cannot stop them from using their land rights,” DiMatteo said.

The commission does not receive any royalties from wells placed on gamelands where they don’t own mineral rights – 74 of which exist in the state.

Currently, there are 49 well pads and 99 wells in state game lands, according to DiMatteo.

The commission attempts to minimize drilling pad, access roads and pipeline sizes whenever possible and tries to avoid disturbing unique habitats or areas that may be home to endangered or threatened species, according to DiMatteo.

In areas where it owns both the surface and mineral rights, the commission tries to maintain strict control. Its 30-page leases – a standard lease is about four pages long – include a variety of best management practices that companies must implement. Flowback impoundments, or man-made ponds, are forbidden by the commission, and drill cuttings must be contained and disposed off off-site rather than placed into a pit and buried.

These requirements are more strict than those required by the state Department of Environmental Protection, according to Zaffuto.

“To some extent, it’s a good thing that the drilling has slowed down some, because it’s given the DEP time to catch up. The best management practices program they have in place now was a huge effort,” Zaffuto said.

He added that best management practices change constantly as technology advances.

“When we are called in to study an area, we determine what to implement on a case-by-case basis. What works in one area isn’t necessarily going to work elsewhere,” Zaffuto said.

As the industry moves forward, the commission hopes to continue attempting to acquire new tracts of land and gain more mineral rights, according to DiMatteo. In some cases, the commission will lease or sell land in exchange for another tract of land of equal value.

The commission has purchased about 25,300 acres of land since 2008 with revenues from the oil and gas industry, according to DiMatteo.

Much of that land has been opened to hunters who would otherwise have lost their hunting spots to oil rigs.

The commission also is actively involved in educating the public about best management practices and exactly how an oil and gas lease works. Overall, the public seems to be more educated now than they were six years ago.

“I used to give talks explaining what is a lease, what is a royalty. These days I think the private land owners have a much better handle on what’s going on and the public understand the implications of drilling a little bit more,” Zaffuto said.

He added that continued public education would be one of the most important steps moving forward.