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Bear in the Woods: Environmental Law Blog

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Show us the revenue!

A few months ago, the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR) issued a policy statement on "Shale Gas Development Beneath Publicly-Owned Streambeds."

The policy begins by stating: "Gas development companies interested in drilling beneath publicly-owned streambeds must obtain a gas lease from [DCNR] prior to drilling[.]" The policy statement notes that DCNR, in consultation with the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), has developed a list of publicly-owned streambeds.

Also posted on DCNR's Web page are two maps showing the locations of the publicly owned streambeds on the DCNR-DEP list. The first is a single-frame map dated February 28, 2012 that includes shading that reveals the extent of the Marcellus Shale formation.

The second is an interactive map that allows the viewer to select particular streams and zoom in to see the precise location of the streambed (and underlying gas) claimed by the Commonwealth.

This is a big deal.

First, it's our property, and nobody may enter and occupy our property without our permission. In Pennsylvania, although it is lawful for a well drilled on one property to pull in natural gas from beneath a neighboring property, one may not drill a well into property owned by someone else without permission, usually in the form of a lease. So, a gas company that has drilled beneath a publicly-owned streambed without first obtaining a lease from the Commonwealth is occupying our public property without permission —which is a polite way to say "trespassing."

Second, there is a lot of money at stake. In 2010, DCNR got a $6.15 million bonus payment ($4,000 per acre), plus a 20 percent royalty for a lease with Chesapeake Energy authorizing the extraction of gas beneath 1,500 acres of a seven mile stretch of the Susquehanna River in Bradford County. At the time, DCNR estimated that the Commonwealth owns the mineral rights beneath at least 25,000 additional acres of rivers and streams.

Take a quick look at DCNR's maps. Given the extent of the streambeds claimed by the Commonwealth, the number of wells drilled in the Marcellus Shale, and the extraordinary length of most horizontal gas wells (several thousand feet), it would be a miracle if every horizontal well drilled into the Marcellus Shale managed to avoid areas beneath the streambeds DCNR identifies as publicly-owned.

With our current budgetary straits, this is no time to subsidize rich gas companies by allowing them — for free — to occupy public property, and to collect and sell the public's natural gas.

So we ask:

How many wells have been drilled beneath publicly owned streambeds in Pennsylvania without a lease? In other words, how many gas wells are occupying public property without the public's permission and without compensation?

What is the Commonwealth doing about such wells?

Show us the leases, and (cue Cuba Gooding Jr.) show us the revenue!


  1. I hadn't been in the Avella area in a long time. When I drove down there on Tuesday, I saw at least six different well sites, including one adjacent to a stream.

  2. If am reading this correctly, the gas drillers are actively breaking the laws of the state of Pennsylvania and robbing the citizens of billions of dollars. Where is law enforcement? Do not the legislators and public employees swear an oath to protect the interests of the public? This is an election year. Let's have some accountability.