(The Center Square) – Though one state agency has refused to greenlight natural gas development on its lands, another one has — and reaped a significant windfall from doing so.

The Pennsylvania Game Commission – since approving natural gas development a dozen years ago on just one-eighth of the 1.6 million acres it manages – has collected nearly $900 million in revenue to support infrastructure upgrades, land preservation and outdoor recreation.

With the rise in price of natural gas, the $370 million the commission anticipates receiving this year is more than double the $178 million earned in 2021-2022.

The commission’s annual report said new well drilling and increased production from existing leases also boosted revenues. In total, more than 200,000 acres of state game lands have been opened to develop oil, gas, coal, and minerals.

Meanwhile, the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources says expanding outdoor recreational opportunities will make more money for the state in the long run.  

“The lottery ticket we’re trying to cash in for Pennsylvania is the outdoor recreation economy,” Secretary Cindy Dunn said. “It’s bigger than gas, bigger than a lot of industries combined … investing in recreation, investing in conservation is a real winner.”

Industries related to outdoor recreation in manufacturing, retail, and tourism ­employed over 150,000 people and added $14 billion to the gross domestic product in 2021, according to the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis.

The department said the data shows the sector was responsible for 1.6 percent of the state’s total economic productivity and 2.5 percent of its share of workers in 2021, The Center Square previously reported.

Both strategies tap into the state’s natural resources for revenues, but which draws a bigger return on investment is up for debate.

The Marcellus Shale Coalition, an industry group that advocates for expanding natural gas development, said the commission serves as “a very good example” of how to maximize these resources to support broader conservation efforts.

“It’s not just about the money that they’re realizing, but it’s about what they’re doing with that money,” said Dave Callahan, the coalition’s president. “It’s how they’re not only maintaining their mission at the game commission, but enhancing it as well: protecting wildlife, protecting ecological resources, providing more infrastructure.”

While the commission has embraced gas development on its lands, the department has historically rejected this model. During a Senate Appropriations Committee hearing in March, officials demurred on using natural gas revenues to fund its operations.

The agency is open to certain kinds of development, however, such as timber sales. About half of the 2.2 million acres of state forest land is in rotation for timber management, Dunn said. Of that half, the department designates 15,000 acres available for timbering each year, generating roughly $22 million.

Instead of approving more development, department officials argue that existing leases on state lands that aren’t being used suggest the problem lies with drillers, not bureaucrats. Dunn noted in the 2022 budget hearings that only one-third of leased land has actually been developed.

“DCNR leased 138,000 acres of SF lands in 2008 and 2010 — to which those tracts are still being developed or built out by those operators that leased those tracks,” DCNR Press Secretary Wesley Robinson said. “Since 2008, revenues from this leasing have brought in over $1.5 billion.”

Aside from contracts related to streambeds, no new natural gas leases have been approved since former Gov. Tom Wolf issued a moratorium on state-owned lands in 2015, The Center Square previously reported

Sen. Gene Yaw, R-Williamsport, wants to see the department copy the state’s game commission. Developing more lands for natural gas, he argued, makes state agencies more responsible and takes pressure off taxpayers.

“The bottom line is it clearly shows what a state agency can do with the assets that they have — if they just used them for the benefit of everybody,” Yaw said. “That was the point I was trying to make with DCNR, that they could … improve the state parks, open more state parks, do everything that they say needs to be done. Rather than utilize the assets that they already have, they look to the taxpayers to give them more money. That doesn’t fit with me.”

During the March budget hearing, Dunn described the divide as “an essential disagreement on the purpose of the public land,” calling state lands “special green spaces for other purposes.”

Yaw argued that “there’s no logic whatsoever behind their position.”

“If there’s a fundamental difference in using public lands, they have no problem in taking almost 15,000 acres, taking the timber off of it, and creating all kinds of environmental issues with runoff and everything else,” Yaw said. “Yet drilling under the ground – where nobody would know it – and collecting the royalties is somehow bad. I don’t understand.”

Anthony Hennen is a reporter for The Center Square. Previously, he worked for Philadelphia Weekly and the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal. He is managing editor of Expatalachians, a journalism project focused on the Appalachian region.

This article was republished with permission from The Center Square.

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