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Oil and Gas Lease Fund should be used only to invest in green infrastructure Commentary Andy Loza

MUCH HAS been said about the need to stimulate our dragging economy by reinvesting in our nation’s infrastructure.

Gov. Ed Rendell has a great opportunity to do just this with existing state revenue and existing authority from the General Assembly: The state’s Oil and Gas Lease Fund recently received an influx of $190 million from the leasing of state forest land for natural gas drilling.

This lease fund, by law, must “be exclusively used for conservation, recreation, dams, or flood control,” items that are desperately in need of job-creating capital investments.

The state’s Growing Greener 2 bonds are all but spent. The state’s Environmental Stewardship Fund has been drained to pay debt service on the Growing Greener 2 bonds. The state’s Keystone Recreation, Park and Conservation Fund, supported with realty transfer taxes, has dried up. In short, the state’s resources for reinvesting in our parks, forests and other green infrastructure have evaporated just when public works efforts could be most beneficial to the economy.

The Oil and Gas Leasing Fund is the exception. Its revenues are way up as our publicly owned forests are exploited for Marcellus Shale natural gas.

More than a century ago, our leaders with great vision began building our state park and forest system. When the General Assembly created the Oil and Gas Lease Fund in 1955, they committed a funding stream to reinvest in the magnificent system of public conservation lands they inherited from their predecessors. They showed respect for the generations yet to come, who deserved to inherit more than just empty gas and oil wells and degraded public lands.

Our leaders recognized that when government allows oil or gas to be extracted from the state lands owned by the people of the commonwealth, the government should reinvest the resulting revenues in our future – not in day-to-day operations. They recognized that the revenues should be invested in green infrastructure to mitigate the environmental damage done from drilling, access roads and pipelines. They adopted a farsighted policy of taking the money from the sale of nonrenewable oil and gas resources owned by the state and reinvesting this money into public conservation assets that would last for generations.

Through seven recessions and more than five decades, the Oil and Gas Lease Fund has been used to reinvest in the state’s green infrastructure. This may come to an end with Gov. Rendell’s recent proposal to redirect the fund to support the day-to-day operations of government.

I urge the governor to reconsider. I do this as a father who wants his children and grandchildren to inherit a public park and forest system undiminished and hopefully stronger than the one I received.

I also do this as part of a coalition of tens of thousands of Pennsylvanians, working through 80 charitable community organizations, who want to conserve Pennsylvania’s special places and build sustainable economies.

The Oil and Gas Lease Fund can be used today to invest in green infrastructure projects to help boost the economy out of recession. These projects – repairing and replacing old dams, improving trails, cleaning up damage from past drilling and mining, restoring floodplains and wildlife habitat, rebuilding roads and parking lots and insulating and upgrading buildings – could be our generation’s major contribution to our parks and forest system.

Our investments would stand beside and build on the successful work done by the 1930s Civilian Conservation Corps and, more recently, the Pennsylvania Conservation Corps. Our economy would benefit from the construction work and the associated jobs that would be created. The commonwealth’s tourism, sporting and recreational businesses also would benefit, preserving many retail and service sector jobs.

If instead, the fund is diverted to pay for day-to-day government operations, we will lose more than just the economic stimulus and a legacy of new and improved public infrastructure. It’s all too easy for a “temporary” diversion of funds to become the permanent way of doing business, even after the fiscal crisis has passed. The precedent of five decades of continually reinvesting in our public lands will be lost. The next five decades will see a steady erosion in the quality of our parks and forests.

As one of 12.4 million Pennsylvanians who own a share in our 2.4 million-acre state forest and park system, I want our forests and parks to be well managed. When they are exploited for their natural resources, I want to be sure that we reinvest in them so that our children and grandchildren can benefit from their bounty, too.

I also want our economy to rebound and people to have jobs. Allowing the Oil and Gas Lease Fund to invest in green infrastructure will help fulfill all of these wants.

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