Lawmakers differ on how to respond to shale report

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HARRISBURG -- For months, Gov. Tom Corbett has said his Marcellus Shale Advisory Commission should be allowed to voice its opinion before regulatory changes are made for gas drilling.

The commission's report is out, and while some state lawmakers are ready to get to work, others are preparing for yet another round of fact-finding.

Count the Senate Republicans, whose leaders pushed a proposal for an impact fee on drillers nearly to a vote during the budget deliberation, among those raring to go.

"I'm not saying everything is fully fleshed out, but there are a lot of recommendations that do speak for themselves," said Drew Crompton, chief of staff to Senate President Pro Tem Joe Scarnati, R-Jefferson.

Staffers will be deciphering hazier recommendations from the 137-page report, he said, with the aim of crafting a comprehensive shale bill for senators to review when they return in late September.

Democrats are pushing for an more aggressive time frame, urging the chamber to return early to consider an impact fee and changes to drilling safety rules.

In the House, Democrats already have put out their own comprehensive measure, combining a severance tax plan with a handful of environmental provisions addressed in the commission report.

But House GOP leaders and the Corbett administration are looking for a slower pace, with Republican representatives planning fall hearings on drilling impacts and the governor so far making no public comments on the document.

"There's a lot of issues at the forefront for this fall," Corbett spokesman Kevin Harley said. "We should take our time and do this the right way, rather than quickly move and have a bad law."

Much of that work will need to include outreach to lawmakers, who say they're eager to hear what the governor will be willing to support.

"I really don't want to go through a bunch of smoky mirrors and two ships passing in the night and let the House and the Senate exchange some bills, so we all walk out of here in December and say we tried again," Mr. Scarnati said in an interview last week before the report's release.

"I think the governor is going to have to work very closely with us early on to give us those parameters of what a bill looks like that he can sign, and whether or not there is some statewide component to that [impact fee]."

House GOP leaders, who so far have shied away from taxes or fees on drillers, also haven't telegraphed what shale-related legislation they could support.

"We need to determine what are the impacts that do need to get taken care of," said House Republican spokesman Steve Miskin. "There are some groups that just want free money."

Some Democrats, including Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa, D-Forest Hills, viewed the vague language in the commission report, which recommended a local fee to assist municipalities with "uncompensated" costs, in a positive light. That flexibility will allow legislators to make their own mark on how to address what they see as a mix of local and statewide impacts, he said.

Others offered a harsher assessment of the report. House Minority Leader Frank Dermody, D-Oakmont, said the panel "punted" when it came to recommending an impact fee. He even scoffed at Republican colleagues pressing for money for statewide impacts but calling their proposal a fee.

"If it's statewide and the government is placing a fee on those guys when they take the gas out of the ground, they can place that name on it if they want to," Mr. Dermody said. "We prefer calling it what it is. There needs to be sufficient revenue to do the things that are needed. I don't believe that [the report] solved that issue one bit."

Rep. Bud George, the ranking Democrat on the House environmental committee, called the report a "public relations ploy" with "feel-good, unspecific generalities."

Mr. George has introduced his own comprehensive measure, which would assess a 30-cent tax per 1,000 cubic feet of gas extracted, as well as increase setbacks from drinking water sources, update bonding fees, extend an operator's liability for contamination, and increase wastewater tracking.

Most of those provisions are recommended at some level in the report. It will be up to lawmakers to decide whether to adopt the specifics that the commission suggested or tweak those figures.

That will require summer reading of the commission report and more talking among lawmakers and the governor.

"We're pretty far along in understanding where some parties are on a shale fee, but not nearly as far on [the details of] bonding, setbacks" and other safety changes likely to be included in fall legislation, Mr. Crompton said.


Laura Olson: lolson@post-gazette.com or 1-717-787-4254.


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