Decisions to drill or mine on public lands, however, are often extremely complicated.
By Allison M. Rohrs, Saint Francis University, Institute for Energy
The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania has historically been, and continues to be, home to an abundant array of energy resources like oil, gas, coal, timber, and windy ridgetops. Expectedly, these natural resources are found both on publicly and privately held land.
In Pennsylvania, the bulk of public lands are managed by two separate state agencies: The Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR), which manages the state’s forest and park system, and the Pennsylvania Game Commission (PGC), which manages the state’s game lands. Both of these state agencies manage oil, gas, and coal extraction as well as timbering on state property. Interestingly, neither of the agencies have utility-scale renewable energy generation on their land.
Some of Pennsylvania’s best wind resources can be found on the mountain ridges in the Commonwealth’s state forests and game lands, however, all proposals to build utility-scale wind farms have been denied by state agencies.
(Note: there are other state and federal agencies managing lands in PA, however, we focused our research on these two agencies specifically.)
Surprised to see that state lands have been greatly developed for different fossil industries but denied for wind energy, The Institute for Energy set out on a yearlong endeavor to collect as much information as we could about energy development on PA public lands. Using formal PA Right to Know requests, we worked with both DCNR and PGC to examine development procedures and management practices. We reviewed hundreds of available state agency reports, scientific documents, and Pennsylvania energy laws and regulations. We also worked with FracTracker Alliance to develop interactive maps that depict where energy development has occurred on state lands.
After a comprehensive review, we realized, like so much in life, the details are much more complicated than a simple yes or no decision to develop an energy project on state lands. Below is a brief summary of our findings, organized by energy extraction method:
Land/Mineral Ownership in Pennsylvania
One of the most significant issues to understand when discussing energy resources on state lands is the complexity of land ownership in Pennsylvania. In many instances, the development of an energy resource on publicly owned land is not a decision, but instead an obligation. In Pennsylvania, property rights are often severed between surface and subsurface ownership. In many cases, surface owners do not own the mineral rights beneath them, and, by PA law, are obligated to allow reasonable extraction of such resource, whether it be coal, oil, or gas. In Pennsylvania, approximately 85% of state park mineral rights are owned by someone other than the Commonwealth (severed rights).
Legal Authority to Lease
It is critical to note that DCNR and PGC are two entirely separate agencies with different missions, legal structures, and funding sources. This plays a significant role in decisions to allow oil, gas, and coal development on their properties. Both agencies have explicit legal authority under their individual statutes that allow them to lease the lands for mineral extraction. This becomes more of an issue when we discuss wind development, where legal authority is less clear, particularly for DCNR.
Oil and Gas Extraction
Oil and gas wells have been spudded on state parks, state forests, and state game lands. The decision to do so is multifaceted and ultimately decided by three major factors:
- Mineral ownership of the land,
- Legal authority to lease the land, and
- Potential impacts to the individual agency.
There is currently a moratorium on new surface leases of DCNR Lands. Moratoriums of such nature have been enacted and removed by different governors since 2010. Although there are no new lease agreements, extraction and production is still occurring on DCNR land from previously executed lease agreements and where the state does not own the mineral rights.
The Game Commission is still actively signing surface and non-surface use agreements for oil and gas extraction when they determine the action is beneficial to achieving their overall mission.
Revenues from the oil and gas industry play a significant role in the decision to drill or not. Both agencies have experienced increasing costs and decreasing revenues, overall, and have used oil and gas development as a way to bridge the gap.
Funds raised from DCNR’s oil and gas activities go back to the agency’s conservation efforts, although from 2009 to 2017, the State Legislature had directed much of this income to the state’s general fund to offset major budget deficits. Just this year, the PA Supreme Court ruled against this process and has restored the funds back to DCNR for conservations purposes.
All revenues generated from oil and gas development on state game lands stays within the Game Commission’s authority.
Along with positive economic benefits, there remains potential health and environmental risks unique to development on these public lands. Some studies indicate that users of these public lands could have potential exposure to pollution both in the air and in the water from active oil and gas infrastructure. The ease of public access to abandoned and active oil and gas infrastructure is a potential risk, as well. On the environmental side, many have argued that habitat fragmentation from oil and gas development is contradictory to the missions of the agencies. Both agencies have independent water monitoring groups specific to oil and gas activities as well as state regulated DEP monitoring. The potential negative effects on ground and surface water quality is an issue, however, mainly due the vast size of public lands and limited dwellings on these properties.
Use the map below to explore the PA state parks, forests, and game lands that have active oil and gas infrastructure.
Oil and Gas Wells on State Lands in PA
Thousands of acres of state forests and game lands have been mined for coal. Like oil and gas, this mineral is subject to similar fee simple ownership issues and is governed by the same laws that allow oil and gas extraction. DCNR, has not signed any virgin coal mining leases since the 1990s, but instead focuses on reclamation projects. There are coal mining operations, however, on forest land where DCNR does not own the mineral rights. The Game Commission still enters into surface and non-surface use agreements for mining.
In many circumstances, mining activity and abandoned mines were inherited by the state agencies and left to them to reclaim. Environmental and health impacts of mining specific to state land are generally attributed more to legacy mining and not to new mining operations.
Acid mine drainage and land subsidence has destroyed rivers and riparian habitats on these lands purposed for conservation.
The ease of public access and limited surveillance of public lands also makes abandoned mines and pits a dangerous health risk. Although threats to humans and water quality exist, abandoned mines have been noted for actually creating new bat habitat for endangered and threatened bat species.
Originally, we sought to quantify the total acreage of public lands affected by coal mining and abandoned mines; however, the dataset required to do so is not yet complete.
The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection is currently in the process of digitizing over 84,000 hand drawn maps of mined coal seams in PA, an expected 15-year project.
Today, they have digitized approximately 30,000. The static map below demonstrates the areas with confirmed coal mining co-located on state lands:
The discussion about renewable energy development in PA is almost as complex as the fossil industries. There are no utility-scale renewables on state owned land. Both DCNR and the Game Commission have been approached by developers to lease state land for wind development, however all proposals have been denied.
Even when DCNR owns the surface rights, they still cite the lack of legal authority to lease the land for wind, as their statute does not explicitly state “wind turbines” as a lawful lease option.
The Game Commission does have the legal authority to lease its land for wind development, but has denied 19 out of 19 requests by developers to do so, citing many environmental and surface disturbances as the primary reason.
The development of wind projects in PA has slowed in the past five years, with only one new commercial wind farm being built. This is due to a variety of reasons, including the fact that many of windiest locations on private lands have been developed.
We estimate that 35% of the state’s best wind resource is undevelopable simply because it is on public land.
Like all energy development, wind energy has potential environmental and health impacts, too. Wind could cause habitat fragmentation issues on land purposed for conservation. The wind energy industry also has realized negative effects on bird and bat species, most notably, the endangered Indiana bat. Health impacts unique to public lands and wind development include an increased risk of injury to hunters and recreators related to potential mechanical failure or ice throw off the blades. Unlike fossil energies, however, wind energy has potential to offset air emissions.
We estimate that wind development on PA public lands could offset and estimated 14,480,000 tons of CO2 annually if fully developed.
Commercial wind turbines are currently being installed at hub heights of 80-100 meters where the annual average wind resource is 6.5 m/s or greater. The following map demonstrates areas of Pennsylvania where the wind speeds are 6.5 m/s or greater at 100 meters, including areas overlapping state lands, where no utility scale development has occurred.
PA Wind Potential on State Lands
Biomass is organic material, such as wood, that is considered renewable because of its ability to be replenished. The harvesting of such wood (timber) occurs on both DCNR and PGC lands and provides funding for these agencies.
Small-scale wind, solar, hydro, geothermal, and biomass projects do exist on PA public lands for onsite consumption, however no renewables exist on a commercial or utility scale.
Both the fossil and renewable energy industries are forecasted to grow in Pennsylvania in the years to come. The complex decisions and obligations to develop energy resources on PA public lands should include thoughtful management and fair use of these public lands for all energy resources.
For more information and details, check out the entire comprehensive report on our website: www.francis.edu/energy.
This work was supported by The Heinz Endowments.