Pennsylvania agency urges Pittsburgh-area officials to clarify shale drilling rules

PUC also deems Fayette County laws sufficient

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HARRISBURG -- In the state Public Utility Commission's first two advisory opinions on local drilling ordinances, there's some good news and some bad news for officials seeking agreement from the agency.

Fayette County's six pages of rules for shale gas drillers were deemed to be in compliance with the sections of the new drilling law that weren't overturned by a Commonwealth Court panel.

But an agency attorney suggests in a letter dated Wednesday that a northeastern Pennsylvania township should tweak its proposed ordinance.

Those nonbinding opinions are the first two out from the commission, which is tasked with evaluating whether local drilling rules fall within the parameters of Act 13, the shale drilling law that went into effect in April.

That duty was complicated by the July appellate court decision halting a provision that limited local zoning rights. Several other sections -- prohibiting local environmental laws and rules that otherwise conflict with state regulations for the industry -- remain in effect.

The commission said last month that it will begin responding to the requests for advisory and official opinions on local drilling rules, evaluating them based on the portions of the law left alone by the Commonwealth Court. An appeal to the state Supreme Court has been filed.

Two Western Pennsylvania towns -- South Fayette and Robinson -- are awaiting official rulings on their ordinances, which could prevent them from receiving a portion of this year's impact fee.

Because of the pending court case, the advisory opinions released Wednesday include a cautionary note. The letters urge the local officials to clarify in their ordinances that if their rules conflict with Act 13, the state law would supersede.

Fayette County officials had not yet reviewed the PUC letter when reached Wednesday.

The letter regarding the ordinance for North Towanda in Bradford County also included revisions for its requirements on setbacks and activity occurring in flood plains.

Raymond Stolinas, the planning director for Bradford County who has been assisting the township, said North Towanda is in the process of overhauling its entire municipal plan. It used some of the definitions from Act 13 in its proposed oil and gas drilling section.

"I think this gives us some guidance on what we need to look at," said Mr. Stolinas, who said one section they thought was consistent with state law and another will need further review.

Having one section of the law unresolved presents a quandary for township officials, Mr. Stolinas said. He's advising that they refrain from further changes that could bring them out of compliance if the zoning section of the law is reinstated.

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Harrisburg Bureau chief Laura Olson: or 717-787-4254.


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