Ridge pushes for environmentally safe gas drilling

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Former Gov. Tom Ridge this afternoon called Marcellus Shale gas production a "transformative opportunity" for Pennsylvania during an appearance Downtown in his new role as a strategic adviser to an industry group.

Still dressed in the jeans and checkered shirt that he wore to inspect production operations in Washington County earlier in the day, Mr. Ridge hailed the industry's economic potential but also stressed the need to manage environmental concerns.

"We're only getting one chance to get it right," Mr. Ridge said, speaking at an energy conference sponsored by the Pittsburgh Business Times.

Speaking to reporters before and after the speech, Mr. Ridge said he hoped Pittsburgh City Councilman Doug Shields' call to ban natural gas drilling in the city would be the "first chapter in a broader discussion" about the industry's future here.

Mr. Ridge said he also opposed a one-year moratorium on new drilling statewide that's been proposed by state Sen. Jim Ferlo, D-Highland Park. Mr. Ferlo proposed the moratorium to give officials time to ponder tighter regulations of the industry, but Mr. Ridge said the concerns can be addressed without a one-year delay in new permits.

Mr. Ridge and his two consulting firms accepted a $900,000, one-year contract to serve as advisers to the Cecil-based Marcellus Shale Coalition.

Earlier today, Mr. Shields unveiled his bill to ban natural gas extraction in the city, saying he won't let the city return to its steel-era days as a center of pollution.

Mr. Shields said he knows the bill, if passed, would draw a legal challenge from the coalition of gas producers. But he said at a news conference he wants to assert the city's sovereign authority to protect itself from a potentially harmful industry and preserve the environmental advances made since the smoky-city era.

"You want that back?" he said of the pollution.

Ben Price, who helped draft the bill as projects director for the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund in Franklin County, said the city's right to protect residents from the hazards of drilling should trump any state claim of authority over drilling matters.

"Rights precede the state," he said. "Rights precede government. Rights precede state statues and are superior to them."

Mr. Shields plans to introduce the bill Sept. 7. He criticized Mayor Luke Ravenstahl for opposing a ban and wondered which neighborhood the mayor considers suitable for drilling.

In response to Mr. Shields' bill, Kathryn Klaber, president and executive director of the coalition, issued a statement saying the industry has a lot to offer.

"At a time when Pittsburghers are feeling uncertain about the current state and future direction of our economy, policymakers and our elected officials should recognize that all economic opportunities should be considered in full," she said. "The shale gas industry has brought to my hometown new jobs, an expansion of our tax base, and environmental stewardship and a safety culture that pervades our daily work.

"The effort announced today by Councilman Shields furthers none of these tremendous benefits to Pittsburgh residents and taxpayers."


Joe Smydo: jsmydo@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1548.


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