THE GOOD NEWS: We predict the state Legislature's obsession with gambling to generate revenue is likely to abate very soon, with the staggering results of a land lease sale for gas extraction in the state that generated $68 million more than was expected.
The bad news: We predict the Legislature is already scoping out how fast they can tap the state's forest land to cash in on this rich new vein of mega-dollars associated with gas extraction.
This week, the state Department of Conservation of Natural Resources reviewed bids from companies wanting leases to drill for natural gas on 32,000 acres of state forest land. The state had been expecting that the leases would bring $60 million; they totaled $158 million.
What made the total jaw-dropping was that these bids were from the same "small, fledgling industry" that the governor and lawmakers backed away from taxing for fear a tax would cripple such development.
So we fear that Harrisburg tongues are hanging out, ready to lap up even more of these dollars by leasing out more forest land as fast as possible.
That's why a tax is critical.
Yesterday, Gov. Rendell announced he'll push again for a tax, and wants the General Assembly to have one in place by July. Rendell was an early proponent of an extraction tax; he backed away from such a tax in September. (And five weeks later, a top Rendell aide left for a job with a leading gas driller.) Why wait? Why not impose the tax right now? Gas is currently being extracted, and the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center estimates that if the tax had been imposed in October, the state would now be about $22 million richer.
As many other states have already discovered, there are many sound arguments for a tax, and not just because it's a vibrant industry.
A tax can insure a fund that can help the state deal with the costs of such drilling. And the impact on the environment beyond just the forest land could be considerable. Paying for monitoring, clean-up and oversight will be critical. And there are still many unknowns about the longer-term impacts of such drilling; already, there have been reports of well water contamination and the state has limited resources to deal with the problem.
The new "gas rush" could be good news for the state budget; it will take diligence to make sure it remains good for the state as a whole. *