Legislation that would place a three-year moratorium on leasing additional state land for gas drilling passed Tuesday in the state House, but a spokesman for the Senate's Republican majority says there's no plan to act on the bill and that the state already has strong regulatory authority over environmental impact.
Introduced by state Rep. Greg Vitali, D-Havertown, the bill also requires the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources to evaluate impacts on gas drilling in the nearly 700,000 acres of state land currently under lease.
The bill was approved 157-33, with votes in favor of the measure coming from Rep. Garth Everett, R-Muncy; Rep. Rick Mirabito, D-Williamsport; and Rep. Michael K. Hanna Sr., D-Lock Haven.
Everett said the bill initially called for a five-year moratorium. He wanted a two-year moratorium. Everett said he worked on a compromise with Rep. David Levdansky, D-Forward Township, to make the bill more palatable.
"My desire was to make it a two-year moratorium and during that time do some environmental impact studies," Everett said. "I was also concerned with impacts on folks who live near state land and the different user communities (such as) hunters, fishermen, campers, hikers and mountain bikers."
Hanna said he preferred a five-year moratorium. However, he called the three-year moratorium "a good day for us."
"It was something we wanted to get passed," Hanna said.
The legislation "does not stop drilling or prevent the leasing of state land in the future, but simply imposes a 'time out' to provide the state with time to assess gas drilling impacts, both seen and unforeseen," Hanna said.
According to Everett, there is plenty of land already leased, so the moratorium should have no impact on the development of natural gas in the state.
"I think there is plenty of state land leased for development now," he said. "Right now, there is Marcellus drilling in state forest as we speak. Maybe after the three-year moratorium, we'll have a pretty good idea of what the impacts are.
"It's going to take time to see what our state forests look like after we're done - to see how disruptive its been," he said. "After we have a chance to see how the development takes place, we may choose not to lease it out in big tracts."
State Sen. E. Eugene Yaw, R-Loyalsock Township, said he had not seen the legislation but believes, like Everett, that the moratorium will have no impact on the industry itself because of the amount of acres already leased.
"There is a significant amount of land already leased and exploration is going on on that land," Yaw said. "I'm not sure it will make any difference as far as the industry is concerned."
"Three years is a small snippet of time," Yaw said. "(The bill impacts) new leasing and should have no impact on drilling companies."
Yaw said he is concerned that leasing state land competes with the leasing opportunities of private landowners. He also is concerned that communities impacted by gas development on state land are not receiving lease-generated revenue.
Yaw said he could not predict how the Senate will vote on the measure.
"It's not anything we've talked about in the Senate," he said. "I expect it to be here for the first time (today)."
Hanna said he hopes the Senate will not "water down" the bill by making the length of the moratorium less than three years.
"Less than three years would be meaningless," he said.
The Rendell administration has leased more than 100,000 acres to drilling companies hungry to explore the Marcellus Shale natural gas formation.
The state has raised more than $300 million and more royalty money is expected.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.