Detrow writes that Department of Conservation and Natural Resources Secretary director Richard Allan has overseen "significant changes" to state scientific research projects examining natural gas drilling and climate change impacts. "Last month, Allan slashed the budget of the agency’s wildlife research program by nearly 70 percent...without consulting the four-person staff responsible for vetting submitted proposals and recommending them for funding." According to the article, DCNR attributes the cuts were caused by declining revenue in the conservation program’s fund. However, DCNR's statement released no criteria for why one program was cut over another.
Under the Rendell administration in 2010, four studies on gas drilling impacts and climate change impacts were funded. This coming year: only one. Despite the endorsement of the Wild Resource Conservation Board to fund two studies on gas, two on climate, and eight others in October. Then the rules abruptly changed, the budget was gutted, seventeen studies were slashed. Only one natural gas study remained.
It appears that political maneuvering played a key role. Detrow reports,
In 2010, nine of the recommended research projects examined the impact of climate change, and four looked at natural gas drilling’s implications. Before the board voted, a staffer representing Hutchinson at the meeting read a statement expressing “deep concern and reservation” about the recommended projects. “In the past the [conservation program] has supported projects that sought to restore a variety of plant and non-game species to their habitats. It seems to me that this theme is not being carried forward,” Hutchinson had written. “Instead, it appears to me, that the committee is being asked to recommend projects for funding that…[are] based upon advancing specific public policy agendas rather than one that is more neutral and scientific based.” Hutchinson said he was referring to the climate change projects.Why does any of this matter? Detrow writes about the threat to scarlet tanager (pictured at right). These migratory songbirds require deep woods to thrive. As more well pads go in, there is less habitat for the birds. The 8-acre-per-well impact that's often quoted for Marcellus wells has a much larger impact in the forests. Including roads and all of the encroachment factors involved, the total impact can be 31 acres, roughly 1/3 of a kilometer per well. When you multiply that by the hundreds of wells in forests now and the thousands to come, the impacts become enormous. Wildlife is and will suffer.
Patrick Henderson represented Republican Senator Mary Jo White at the meeting. He had a problem with the projects, too. The official minutes, approved by the board during its 2011 meeting, read, “Mr. Henderson expressed concern about natural gas extraction being identified as an environmental impact.” He said, “these projects may not warrant this grant money,” referencing souring budget conditions.
Henderson, of course, went on to become Governor Corbett’s point man on energy and drilling policies. As Energy Executive, Henderson sat on Corbett’s 2011 Marcellus Shale Advisory Commission, and wrote the bulk of its final report.
The Sierra Club of Pennsylvania's Jeff Schmidt has come out swinging. In a press release today, he is quoted as saying, "Governor Corbett and DEP Secretary Mike Krancer repeatedly say they want sound science to dictate environmental policy in Pennsylvania. However, we have now learned that they are willing to slash funding for necessary scientific research to determine potential environmental harm for which their policies could be responsible. It is clear that the Corbett administration's political goals to promote gas drilling trump their claim to support sound science. In fact, the inconvenient reality is that while gas drilling is ruining drinking water supplies and wildlife habitat, the Corbett administration engages in a cover up of the true impacts."
The press release goes on to cite instances where DEP covered up a Cabot Oil and Gas spill in Lenox, Pennsylvania and ruled the company could cease supplying fresh water to the town of Dimock despite having been found to have polluted the town's water. To compound issues with the directorship of DCNR, earlier this week the Executive Director of the Conservation and Natural Resources Advisory Committee (CNRAC), who provides oversight of DCNR's oil and gas drilling activities on Pennsylvania's public forests and parks, was fired.
"The pattern of the Corbett administration's environmental policies is becoming more apparent every day," Schmidt continued. "We call on the General Assembly to halt the rush to drill in Pennsylvania, and to scrap legislation such as HB 1950, which was written by the Corbett administration. It is time our elected officials represented the people of Pennsylvania, not the out-of-state drillers."
We suspect that in the next 24 hours, the blogosphere will light up with this news as will other environmental organizations like PennFuture, PennEnvironment, and others.