In difficult budgetary times, cuts in even the most important state programs are necessary. And the 1.4 percent shrinkage in this year's proposed budget is a reflection of that. But the almost 25 percent reduction in the DEP budget line item (from $229 million to $173 million) reflects more an attempt to cripple environmental protection than a good-faith effort to marshal scarce resources.
Even without these proposed cuts, DEP already has been forced to scale back important programs such as West Nile virus and black fly eradication. The Keystone Help Energy Program is set to end in December.
If these cuts become final, as many as 400 of DEP's 3,000 employees would be let go. This would leave the department with insufficient resources to enforce the laws that protect the quality of our air, water and soil.
In addition to these draconian DEP cuts, the budget agreement contains excessive requirements for the leasing of state forest land in order to raise budget revenues. Although the specifics remain secret and have changed over time, the offering of as much as 100,000 additional acres of state forest land for Marcellus shale natural gas drilling in 2009, with again as much offered in 2010, has been contemplated.
This level of drilling activity would irrevocably damage the character of our state forests. The drilling process involves a high volume of water use, as well as the disposal of water contaminated by drilling. The drilling would also require the construction of roads, sediment basins and other infrastructure. All of this would disturb sensitive habitats and make our state forests less desirable places for sportsmen, hikers and tourists.
A reasonable amount of natural gas drilling on state forest lands is necessary to help our economy and to access this needed resource. It is important to note that already about 660,000 acres of the 1.5 million acres of state forest land in the Marcellus shale play is now available for natural gas drilling. But the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, using best forest management practices -- not politicians -- should determine how much acreage should be offered for drilling.
A better way to raise revenue would be to levy a severance tax on the natural gas from wells that are already leased. Almost every other state where natural gas drilling occurs levies a severance tax. To lease additional state forest land without imposing a severance tax is fiscally irresponsible and bad public policy.
Legislative leaders are working now to produce a final budget document so the House and Senate can vote on it, perhaps within the next week. Contact your state representative and senator now and tell them that environmental protection and the quality of Pennsylvania's forests are too important to compromise in order to solve our short term fiscal problems.
State Rep. Greg Vitali is a Democrat representing Dela ware and serves on the Penn sylvania House Environmental Resources and Energy Com mittee.