City weighing Marcellus Shale drilling concerns

Some on Council favor limits, others want to prohibit it

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The prospect of gas wells near Lawrenceville condos or Lincoln Place gardens has Pittsburgh Council weighing whether to bar the Marcellus Shale boom from the city, or just strictly limit it.

Whether council can do either is questionable, given state law that preempts local gas drilling rules. And it may be tough to build consensus around either Councilman Patrick Dowd's proposal to set conditions for drilling, which he'll introduce Tuesday, or colleague Doug Shields' preference for prohibition.

Mr. Shields said he would "want to start for openers at, 'No, I don't want to see [drilling] in the city,' " and negotiate from there.

"On a personal level, as an individual, I might want to see an outright ban," Mr. Dowd said Saturday. "I fear what [drilling] will do to my drinking water, and more importantly I fear what this will do to my kids' drinking water."

However, legislation barring gas drilling "would eliminate our ability to engage in this conversation," he said.

Spurring the conversation, statewide and beyond, is the rush to tap gas trapped a mile underground in the Marcellus Shale formation. Statewide, close to 800 rigs are built or under construction, and nearly 2,000 drilling sites have been permitted so far.

None are within the city's borders, but agents have approached landowners about leasing the rights to gas beneath their property. Mr. Dowd said he's aware of more than 60 signed leases for property in Lawrenceville, and Mr. Shields has been educating Lincoln Place residents to implications of signing such documents.

"What will this do to health and safety and wellbeing of residents?" Mr. Dowd asked.

He'd like to allow oil and gas drilling in areas zoned for industry only, and then only after "yes" votes by the City Planning Commission and council. Those bodies would consider whether a driller had a site of 15 acres or more that was at least 1,000 feet from homes or public buildings, and scrutinize their plans to minimize noise and air pollution.

Drillers would have to disclose the chemicals they would use on the site, submit emergency management plans, test soil and water before beginning work, and return the site to its prior condition after shutdown. Their trucks also would be barred from residential streets.

The proposed road rule alone "appears to effectively prohibit [gas] development within the city limits," said Kathryn Z. Klaber, president and executive director of the Marcellus Shale Coalition, an advocacy group for the industry. "If you can't move vehicles around the vicinity of a well, you really can't develop a well site."

Cities like Fort Worth, Texas, have found ways to balance civic concerns with the economic benefits of gas extraction, she said, in ways that "truly changed the economy of that city."

Fiscally challenged Pittsburgh could make money by leasing public land to drillers, she said. Property owners, meanwhile, could get royalty checks from wells deep underground that fan out from a central rig.

"There are economic windfalls for landowners that will never see their property disturbed," she said.

She said drilling rules should be statewide, not local, but added that she is reaching out to council members to work with them on their concerns.

Mayor Luke Ravenstahl hasn't yet seen the legislation, said his spokesman, Joanna Doven.

"His number one priority is to protect city residents, and to the extent this legislation does that, that's something that's certainly worth looking into."

Mr. Dowd said his council collaborators on the legislation include R. Daniel Lavelle, Ricky Burgess and Theresa Smith. Council President Darlene Harris said Mr. Dowd and Mr. Shields should try to work out the differences in their approaches.

Industry skeptics praised Mr. Dowd's proposal, while suggesting that it could be strengthened.

"It's an excellent first start," said state Sen. Jim Ferlo, D-Highland Park, who is pushing in Harrisburg for a one-year moratorium on new drilling. He said council should consider barring drilling near the rivers and demanding that firms post a bond to pay for any accidents.

This month has seen gas well blowouts in Clearfield County and near Moundsville, W.Va.

Gloria Forouzan, a Lawrenceville resident and activist, urged that the minimum distance from homes be increased from the proposed 1,000 feet. She said drilling companies should have to reimburse the city for training its personnel need in gas emergency management.

Environmentalists realize that natural gas extracted from the Marcellus Shale burns much more cleanly than coal, said Peter Wray, co-chair of the Conservation Committee of the Sierra Club Allegheny Group. The challenge is getting it out of the shale it in a way that doesn't pollute ground water or disrupt neighborhoods.

"Given those concerns, we and other environmental organizations will have to consider whether a moratorium on Marcellus drilling is the better approach or whether an immediate set of safeguards is needed," he said.

Because proposed zoning legislation takes effect on a temporary basis at the moment of its introduction, Mr. Dowd's proposal would kick in Tuesday. It then would be the subject of hearings and votes before the Planning Commission and council. Mr. Shields also wants a panel discussion, to include the mayor of Dish, Texas, who has said that gas wells polluted that tiny town north of Fort Worth. The process could take many months.

Any delay is "not to the detriment of the industry as much as it's to the detriment of landowners in Pittsburgh," said Ms. Klaber. An outright or de facto ban would make the industry "less likely to lease the land," and eventual extraction "may not be as lucrative to the landowners as in a community that has reached out to work with the industry."


Rich Lord: rlord@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1542


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