Sunday, March 1, 2009

Game and Fish Commission sued over use of gas-leasing money

The Morning News

Local News for Northwest Arkansas

Lawsuit Filed Over Leases To Gas Company

By The Associated Press
LITTLE ROCK -- A lawsuit filed in Pulaski County aims to stop the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission from solely using the money generated from leasing state lands to Chesapeake Energy Corp.

James Dockery of Little Rock filed the suit against the commission, which will be getting about $30 million from land leases to the gas exploration company in wildlife management areas. Dockery claims the money should go into the state’s general budget and be available to all agencies.

“Historically, leasing Game & Fish land is for the purposes of hunting and fishing,” Byrum Hurst Jr., Dockery’s lawyer, told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. “Now, we have a situation unique in the state. All of a sudden we have Game and Fish property being leased to oil and gas companies and producing not only oil and gas, but huge amounts of revenue that appears to be headed to the pockets of the Game & Fish Commission and nowhere else.”

Jim Goodhart, general counsel for the Game & Fish Commission, said, “We’re aware that we’ve been sued.”

“I’m not going to comment on what is in the lawsuit because we’ve not been served yet,” Goodhart said Friday. “We expect to be served, and after we’ve had an opportunity to review it, we’ll take appropriate action to defend the state’s interest.”

The commission voted in July 2008 to accept the terms of the leases with Chesapeake for drilling rights in the Gulf Mountain and Petit Jean River wildlife management areas after taking bids on the opportunity to explore the lands. The leases will allow the Oklahoma City-based company to have access to more than 7,500 acres in the Petit Jean River WMA in Yell County and nearly 4,000 acres in the Gulf Mountain WMA in Van Buren County.

Though the commission initially balked at offering other state agencies any of the money, it later agreed to share $3.5 million with environmental regulators.

Dockery’s lawsuit cites the environmental concerns that might arise from exploration in the state’s Fayetteville Shale play as a reason for the need to share the money.

“The general public, including the Plaintiff, has not been informed as to whether the chemicals used to extract gas are toxic or contains various toxins which could be harmful,” the suit claims.

Teresa Marks, the director of the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality, said she hadn’t studied the lawsuit. However, she sought to put to rest Dockery’s concerns about the effects of drilling.

“It appears to me that the plaintiff is concerned about environmental protection in the state,” Marks said. “If that is something he is concerned about, then he should be pleased that we are getting some of that money because it will certainly be going to the protection of the environment in the state.”

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