On Thursday, January 29, 2015, Pennsylvania’s new governor, Tom Wolf, signed Executive Order 2015-03, thereby reinstating a moratorium on new leases for oil and gas development in state parks and forests. Wolf’s moratorium restores a ban instituted by Governor Ed Rendell just prior to his leaving office in 2010. Republican Governor Tom Corbett had lifted Rendell’s moratorium by Executive Order 2014-03 on May 23, 2014.
Wolf, who campaigned heavily on a promise to ban fracking on state lands, insists that he generally supports fracking, but was concerned with “striking the right balance” because “[o]ur state parks and forests are unique assets that should be preserved, protected, and utilized by our residents for recreational purposes.”
Wolf’s moratorium comes on the heels of a Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court decision earlier this month upholding both the government’s right to lease more public lands for drilling and the application of proceeds to programs other than environmental conservation. In the decision, the Commonwealth Court also ruled that the governor’s office is not empowered to override leasing decisions of the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR). The court reasoned that under the Conservation and Natural Resources Act – the 1995 Act that created DCNR – “DCNR has the exclusive statutory authority to determine whether to sell or lease the Commonwealth’s natural resources for oil and natural gas extraction.” The court observed, however, that “[t]his is not to say that the governor, as the chief executive, and the General Assembly are precluded from attempting to influence DCNR’s leasing decisions.” Given the court’s ruling that the DCNR has ultimate control over leasing decisions, it is questionable whether Governor Wolf’s executive order would be legally effective if DCNR decided to enter into additional leases.
Nevertheless, environmental groups have applauded the decision as showing Wolf’s support for strong environmental regulation. Industry groups, such as the Marcellus Shale Coalition, meanwhile, have sharply criticized Wolf’s decision as a “deeply misguided and purely political action to unnecessarily ban the safe and tightly regulated development of natural gas.”