Shields pushes to put gas drilling ban in Pittsburgh charter

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Pittsburgh city Councilman Doug Shields on Tuesday proposed that an 8-month-old ban on natural gas drilling be enshrined in the city's home-rule charter, an infrequently altered document providing the basic framework of city government.

Mr. Shields introduced legislation that would put a referendum on the November ballot, asking voters whether they want to amend the charter to include the drilling ban that council enacted for the city last fall.

By seeking to include the ban in the charter, Mr. Shields wants to make it more difficult for future councils or activists to rescind the prohibition. But Mr. Shields, roundly criticized by the natural gas industry when he led the charge for the ban, said he also wants to see how the public responds to the issue.

"It's certainly ripe for the asking," Mr. Shields said, noting that Marcellus Shale drilling continued to dominate discussions about the environment, the economy and politics.

The proposed referendum drew a rebuke from the Cecil-based Marcellus Shale Coalition, a trade group.

"It's unfortunate that Councilman Shields would put forth such a highly charged referendum aimed at stripping private property rights from city residents and denying revenue to city government," coalition president Kathryn Klaber said in a statement. "Pittsburgh residents deserve to have their rights protected, not hampered -- they should be allowed to individually determine whether or not they want to lease and profit from their natural gas rights through responsible and highly regulated development."

If council approves the legislation by Aug. 1, the start of its annual summer recess, the question will go on the ballot in November.

Mr. Shields said a "yes" vote from a simple majority of the voters who turn out in November would be enough to amend the charter, something that's happened 16 times since voters approved the charter in November 1974. The most recent amendment, in December 2000, eliminated community advisory boards.

Mayor Luke Ravenstahl opposed the ban, citing economic development benefits of the gas industry, and Marcellus Shale producers called the measure illegal. A similar ban by Morgantown, W.Va., is facing a legal challenge by drillers.

Mr. Shields' proposal already has some support. "I think it's the logical next step," Councilwoman Natalia Rudiak said.

Joe Smydo: 412-263-1548.


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