Environmentalists were pleased to see Gov. Tom Wolf move quickly to overturn ex- Gov. Tom Corbett's plans to open up more state parks and forests to gas leasing. Wolf did this during his first full week in office, fulfilling a campaign pledge.
In the executive order banning new gas leasing on our public lands, Wolf invoked the Pennsylvania Constitution's Environmental Amendment (Section 27, Article 1) as part of the legal framework that supported his action.
This section of our Constitution reads, in part, "the Constitution of Pennsylvania guarantees the Commonwealth's citizens the right to clean air, pure water and to the preservation of the natural, scenic, historic and aesthetic values of the environment."
Wolf also invoked the law that created the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, which says the agency has a duty to conserve and maintain state parks and state forests in the public trust for the benefit of all its citizens, including generations to come, as required under our state Constitution.
Drilling for natural gas has many harmful impacts.
The state Department of Environmental Protection has determined that hundreds of families have had their drinking water contaminated by poorly constructed wells.
Methane air pollution from leaking wells and pipeline infrastructure is a potent greenhouse gas, contributing to climate disruption.
In the last five years, 10,000 acres of our publicly-owned state forests, have been converted from a wilderness-type experience to outings that have to negotiate drilling pads, pipelines, compressor stations and pipelines, large impoundments to store water for fracking, new roads and power lines.
Wildlife habitat has been fragmented, with interior forest species being forced to find new nesting grounds. Invasive species are moving into areas where gas drilling occurs, threatening the native species.
Recreational enthusiasts such as hunters, hikers, anglers and bird watchers are finding their traditional and favorite forest destinations turned into industrial operations.
A single well drilled in a forest location requires thousands of truck trips to deliver the needed water, chemicals, and equipment. Accidents at well sites have killed workers, caused explosions and spills that have polluted streams and rivers, and contaminated farms, threatening livestock.
These kinds of impacts have occurred in the early "build-out" of the gas drilling industry's efforts to exploit the Marcellus shale deposits.
Based on existing leases approved by prior administrations, they have only drilled 20 percent of their anticipated wells on our public state forests.
Both Corbett and former Gov. Ed Rendell used our public lands as "cash cows" to balance their budgets, while our forests, wildlife and citizens suffered the consequences.
A much better approach would be to halt future leasing, and impose a natural gas extraction tax, similar to what other gas drilling states have had in place.
Make the drillers pay their fair share, rather than allow them to maximize their profits at the expense of us all.
It's also time to tighten the rules on drilling across-the-board.
The state should require drillers to capture their methane pollution, ban open fracking waste water pits, disclose the names of all chemicals using in fracking at each well, require drillers to provide a permanent replacement water supply when they pollute drinking water, expand set-back requirements, require compressor stations to comply with noise and pollution limits.
Pennsylvania needs to create and fund a health registry for impacts from gas drilling and fracking.
I hope our new administration will make these their goals, and not just focus on an extraction tax.
When he took office on Jan. 20, Wolf swore an oath to uphold the Pennsylvania Constitution, and one of his first acts was to do just that.
What a refreshing change from the prior administration, which ignored the Constitution's environmental requirements, and the findings of the professionals in the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.
Every poll taken has shown that an overwhelming majority of the public oppose more gas leasing of our public lands.
Our 2.2 million-acre state forest system already has more than 650,000 acres available to the gas drillers, thanks to prior gas leasing and privately-held mineral rights under our public lands.
Many citizens believe the gas drillers already have access to way too much of our public lands. But Corbett and the drillers wanted even more.
Wolf has now put those additional acres off-limits, and should be congratulated for taking this important first step.
The new leasing moratorium is a reminder that elections have consequences. And sometimes those consequences benefit all the people, not just wealthy campaign contributors.
Jeff Schmidt is the co-chairman of the Public Lands Committee for the Pennsylvania chapter of the Sierra Club. He writes from Shermansdale, Pa.