Committee hearing draws crowd in city

The bill is twofold: make government more transparent in an effort to protect state lands from potential damage due to unconventional gas drilling.

Sponsored by state Rep. Rick Mirabito, D-Williamsport, that was the focus of a public hearing at Lycoming College held by the House Democratic Policy Committee on Monday.

Over 100 members of the public came out to show their support of, or speak out against, a bill that would require the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources to seek public input before leasing state forest lands for unconventional gas development.

If House Bill 2318 becomes law – it still is in committee – the department would have to provide a public comment period before unconventional gas drilling begins as well as one public hearing while providing access to detailed development plans and environmental reviews.

According to the bill in its current form, those reviews would analyze “the potential impacts of the proposed development on ecological, recreational, cul

tural and aesthetic resources and public health.”

Mirabito considers the bill a starting point to protect state lands, but one woman from the public said the process should have begun long ago.

Wendy Lynn Lee said the bill serves an “ineffectual function.”

“Transparency might not translate into action,” the Bloomsburg University philosophy professor said. “Nothing in the bill requires DCNR – which didn’t even bother to show up today – to take heed of that public comment … The bill pretends to offer power, sounding an alarm all the while knowing there is no one listening.”

The absence of officials from the drilling industry and the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources was noted by many.

“It’s reprehensible,” Mirabito said of their absence.

Only written testimony from a representative of the Pennsylvania Independent Oil and Gas Association was presented at the hearing.

In the letter, Kevin J. Moody, vice president of government affairs and general counsel at the association, called the underlying policies of the bill “misguided and shortsighted.”

“Dishearteningly and paradoxically, it would appear that the Democrat Party policy is out to make publically-owned natural gas inaccessible and to strangle and destroy an entire industry,” the letter reads.

“The industry response is pretty extreme,” said state Rep. Dan B. Frankel, D-Pittsburgh. “Did they even read this bill? It’s a very reasonable, very modern piece of legislation. Many of us on this panel support responsible drilling.”

“This is not an anti-gas bill,” Mirabito said. “It’s about transparency and accountability.”

Representatives from several organizations supported the bill through testimony at the hearing.

“One thing the DCNR does not do well, at least where oil and gas decisions are concerned, is to engage Pennsylvania’s citizens,” said Mark Szybist, a staff attorney for PennFuture. Szybist recommended that the “scope of the bill be expanded to cover state parks, as well as state forests.” He also recommended that the bill allow for a “no-development alternative.”

Robert Cross, president of the Responsible Drilling Alliance, said the bill “would become the conservation safeguard that is now absent.” As he called for bi-partisan support of the bill, Cross said, “The rush to drill that characterizes the present myopic approach by the gas industry and present administration in Harrisburg would change to a more careful equation, balancing benefits with risks and consequences.”

Paul T. Zeph, director of Conservation of Audubon Pennsylvania, said songbird nests are at risk of being pushed out as a result of hydraulic fracturing.

“Had we had the opportunity to provide input before these state forests were fracked, we would have worked to minimize the fragmentation that has occurred,” Zeph said. “When wider roads and pipelines run through the middle of forest blocks, it greatly diminishes the nesting value of those forests.”

Representing the hiking community, Curt Ashenfelter, executive director of the Keystone Trails Association, said the state’s hiking trails are “enjoyed annually by hundreds of thousands of visitors.”

“Hundreds of people spoke at the one public meeting DCNR has held concerning gas drilling in state forests,” he continued. “However those comments were not recorded or documented. Little is known if DCNR acted on any of the comments. H.B. 2318 would change that.”

Joanne Kilgour, director of the state’s chapter of the Sierra Club, said public input on gas development will “reduce the likelihood of expensive and time consuming litigation … creating an opportunity to creatively resolve differences in approach before parties get locked into positions that can only be resolved through litigation.”

Harry Campbell, state executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, also said the bill will not delay gas development in the state.

“While some may argue that an environmental impact study or review may delay natural gas development activities, neither that nor this bill would prevent nor put a halt to the exploration, drilling or production of this important, domestic energy source,” he said.