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Pa. Delays Auction of Gas Drilling Rights

Environment: A council calls for postponement until the public can weigh in. Effect on state forest land is cited.

April 26, 2002|From Associated Press

HARRISBURG, Pa. — State officials delayed the largest-ever auction of natural gas drilling rights on public forest land Thursday after being criticized for trying to keep the event from public scrutiny.

If auctioned, the leases could result in more high-pressure natural gas drilling on state forest land, adding to the handful of high-pressure wells and hundreds of shallow wells already there.

On Wednesday, a state environmental advisory council voted to recommend postponing the auction pending further public comment after hearing details for the first time from John C. Oliver, state secretary for Conservation and Natural Resources.

The council members, like environmental activists and members of the public, did not learn about the auction until Oliver's department advertised for bids in newspapers a month ago.

"Even though we followed our standard procedure with this lease, we should have made our plans known well in advance," Oliver said Thursday. "It became clear the public did not view this lease as 'standard.' "

A public comment period will end June 15, Oliver said, and a decision to reschedule the auction will be made by July 31.

The auction had been scheduled to involve 141 tracts of state land making up about 500,000 acres, an area representing nearly one-fourth of the land run by the state's forestry bureau.

The object of the gas industry's interest is a long streak of natural gas captured in the fractures and faults of 400-million-year-old rock along the Appalachian Mountains and beyond. Officials say it could produce the state's most lucrative drilling harvest ever.

Because of its depth--two to three miles, five times deeper than the reach of traditional, shallow wells--the deposits have gone largely unexplored.

Environmentalists warn that the drilling and accompanying pipelines and roads will shatter an unbroken swath of forest, upsetting sensitive wildlife habitats and ruining recreation areas.

They noted that Thursday's postponement did not appear to include plans for an environmental impact statement detailing the potential risks to public health and safety.

Interest in north-central Pennsylvania spiked in the last few years after companies drilled successful wells across the state line in New York, where the formation is closer to the surface and less expensive to reach.

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