Representatives from more than 44 municipalities in seven counties met Tuesday night in Green Tree for a first-of-its-kind Marcellus Shale town hall meeting to address legislation that is pending in the state House and Senate.
Their message to lawmakers?
Don't take away our local control.
"We want to send a clear, unified message to Harrisburg that we are opposed to any language that would pre-empt municipalities," said Richard Ward, manager of Robinson, Washington County. "Pre-emption is not an option."
Earlier this month, both the Senate and House passed shale-related bills that would eliminate local governments' power to regulate most aspects of gas well drilling and its related infrastructure, such as compressor stations and processing plants.
Legislators have been trying to hammer out a compromise before year's end to send to Gov. Tom Corbett, who favors state control.
The bills, which vary in their level of local pre-emption, also call for impact fees that would be divvied among municipalities, counties and the state.
But either way, representatives attending the meeting at the Green Tree municipal center, from as far north as Cranberry in Butler County to Greene Township in southern Greene County, say that even the state Supreme Court as late as 2009 recognized the role of local officials in determining where drilling activities should take place in their towns.
"How can anybody who isn't a resident or a stakeholder in a municipality know better than the people who live there what they need?" said Peters Councilman David Ball. "One-size-fits all legislation is not an answer."
The proposed legislation "ignores the input of local governments," Mr. Ball said. "Local governments have not been consulted in this process."
Lawmakers did not attend the town hall meeting and remain in Harrisburg for the last few days of this legislative session -- set to expire next Tuesday in the House and today in the Senate.
Still, some lawmakers and officials said they were hopeful a last-minute deal could be struck, including Lt. Gov. Jim Cawley, chairman of the Marcellus Shale Advisory Commission, who recently said that he's "very optimistic" that a deal can be wrapped up soon.
Others aren't so sure.
House Majority Leader Mike Turzai, R-Bradford Woods, said on Monday
that while there have been "serious discussions" toward a compromise
between the House and Senate bills, certain disagreements remain. He called the end-of-the-year deadline that the governor, some lawmakers and various interest groups had urged for completing a bill arbitrary.
"Our session goes until the end of November of 2012," he told
reporters. "There's no doubt we'll have a Marcellus Shale package into
law this session."
Local officials who gathered at the town hall meeting said they would like to see a bill that maintains local control as it now exists for issues such as zoning, planning, noise and road damage.
But drilling companies have expressed frustration over the patchwork of local regulations that vary widely, costing them time and money during the critical planning process.
Officials say that stripping them of any oversight would give drilling companies too much power and usurp their rights at the expense of local residents, who have to put up with drilling in their backyards.
"If the state pre-empts our right to regulate this industry, why not pre-empt the ability to regulate every industry?" said Richard Grossman, a professional planner from Slippery Rock in Butler. "If pre-emption starts with this where does it end?"
Also commenting about the debate in recent days was David Sanko, executive director of the Pennsylvania State Association of Township Supervisors, and state business leaders.
"In this current sluggish economy, PSATS certainly welcomes the jobs and economic development opportunities that natural gas development brings, as well as the opportunity to reduce our national dependence on foreign oil," Mr. Sanko said in a statement. "However, PSATS is also interested in preserving the quality of life of Pennsylvania and our environment."
In a memo dated Dec. 7, statewide business groups, including the Pennsylvania Business Council and the Pennsylvania Chamber of Commerce, asked legislators to reconcile the differences between the House and Senate bills before year's end.
"Pennsylvania is at a critical juncture," the memo said. "In the midst of the worst economic recession since the Great Depression, the Commonwealth is in a global race for finite investment capital. We must seize this opportunity to develop our abundant natural gas resources and win the economic prosperity and jobs that will result, or lose out to states and countries whose regulatory and tax environments make them more attractive for industry investment."
Legislators in southeastern Pennsylvania also are facing pressure from a cadre of environmental groups, which plan to rally this afternoon at the offices of three state senators to protest the loss of local control and impact fees, which they see as letting "polluters off the hook from paying their fair share."
Those attending Tuesday night's meeting say they just want lawmakers to set aside political gamesmanship and recognize the value of their input.
"At the local level, it's not about politics," Mr. Ward said. "It's about maintaining our sovreignty."
Contacted in Harrisburg Tuesday night, state Rep. Jesse White, D-Cecil, said he supported much of what local officials were saying.
"We can absolutely develop Marcellus Shale, encouraging job creation and clean energy, while allowing local communities to enact reasonable zoning ordinances to keep drillers accountable and the public safe," he said. "Despite what some industry-paid cheerleaders would have you believe, this is not an all-or-nothing proposition. If they can drill for up to a mile out, why would we ever need to put a well site or compressor station within 750 feet of a school, hospital or senior center with no conditions whatsoever? This is not the attack on clean energy, Uncle Sam and apple pie the gas industry would have the public believe; this is local officials trying to make sure Marcellus Shale is developed in a safe, responsible and accountable way.
"Eliminating or severely limiting local zoning of Marcellus Shale is indefensible corporate welfare on the backs of the taxpayers of Pennsylvania. If the industry wants to 'do it right' as they claim, it's time for them to practice what they preach and stop playing games, because any process that makes it easier to build a massive compressor station than it would be to add a garage onto your home cannot possibly fit into any common sense definition of 'the right way'."
Janice Crompton: email@example.com . Staff writer Laura Olson contributed.