HARRISBURG - About 700,000 acres of state forest land in the Marcellus Shale region is being placed off-limits to any natural gas drilling under an executive order signed Tuesday by Gov. Ed Rendell.

Rendell said a moratorium on new leasing of forest land to drillers is needed to protect Pennsylvania's ability to manage the forests in a sustainable manner and protect the state's forest products and tourism industries. He said an executive order is necessary because the Senate didn't act this session on a House-passed bill to place a three-year moratorium on additional leases while environmental impact issues are studied.

But a question exists how long the executive order will be in effect.

Rendell plans to ask the two gubernatorial candidates, Republican Tom Corbett and Democrat Dan Onorato, to continue the executive order once either takes office in January.

"Tom Corbett will rescind the executive order," said Corbett campaign spokesman Kevin Harley. "He believes it's ill-advised and short-sighted."

Corbett plans to provide environmental protection through proposed regulations to keep wells 2,500 feet away from water sources and stiffen fees for violations, he added.

Onorato wants to study the environmental impact of existing leases before leasing additional acreage, according to a campaign policy document.

The governor's executive order is based on a Department of Conservation and Natural Resources analysis of 800,000 acres of unleased forest land in the Marcellus Shale formation. This acreage covered by the order includes wild and natural areas, old-growth forests, environmentally sensitive areas including wetlands, habitat for endangered species and scenic vistas; wilderness areas; 88,000 acres in the Poconos and 20,000 acres in the Laurel Highlands where ecotourism is developing.

Another 700,000 acres of state forest land in the formation is either leased for oil and gas drilling or the state doesn't own the subsurface mineral rights. The potential exists that companies could drill 1,000 well pads, containing up to 10,000 wells, and build roads and pipelines on this leased land during the next 30 years.

While a de facto moratorium has existed since last spring, Rendell said he made a commitment then to House lawmakers to issue the executive order if the Senate didn't approve the moratorium bill. The breakdown of efforts to enact a state severance tax on natural gas production also influenced his decision, he said.

Meanwhile, five Republican senators from Southeast Pennsylvania have urged their Senate leadership to revive talks on the severance tax and include measures to improve environmental and natural gas safety regulations as well. They are Sens. Ted Erickson, R-26, Drexel Hill; Stewart Greenleaf, R-12, Willow Hill; Bob Mensch, R-24, Schwenksville; Chuck McIlhinney, R-10, Doylestown, and Robert Tomlinson, R-6, Bensalem.

All five hold even-numbered seats, meaning they face reelection Tuesday. All five have Democratic opponents. They represent suburban districts outside the Marcellus Shale drilling zone, but where constituents are concerned about environmental issues and the safety of pipelines transporting natural gas to seaboard cities.

Contact the writer: rswift@timesshamrock.com