Citizens shale panel urges slower pace for gas drilling

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HARRISBURG -- A revised drilling impact fee plan is expected to resurface Wednesday in the state Senate, but a coalition of environmental, labor and liberal-leaning policy groups is hoping that its new report can still play a role in the debate.

The Citizens Marcellus Shale Commission on Monday unveiled a 90-page report that calls for the commonwealth to slow down on gas drilling, enact additional environmental safeguards and begin work on long-term impact studies of the industry's activities.

The 18-member panel, made up of former lawmakers, environmentalists, academics and others, held five hearings across the state. Organizers said they believe that the governor's commission failed to adequately listen to concerns from Pennsylvanians, and those at the hearings expressed a similar sentiment.

"The citizens of the commonwealth take very seriously their right to clean air and clean water," said former state Rep. Dan Surra, a Democrat from Elk County and co-chairman of the commission. "There was an underlying theme of a lack of trust of our state regulatory agencies and a sense of fear and frustration from the people living in these communities."

The new report commended the governor's panel on some recommendations, including those for preparing for emergencies at well sites. But it went farther in other areas, calling for an end to expedited permitting, for state forests and game lands to be off-limits until an impact study is completed, for tougher air pollution rules to be enacted, and for drillers to pay a severance tax.

"The state was and still is not prepared to limit the risks and impacts of drilling," said Roberta Winters of the League of Women Voters.

Some of those policy changes built upon what the governor's panel outlined. Mr. Corbett's advisers suggested that the zone within which a driller is presumed liable for water contamination be extended to 2,500 feet, from the current 1,000 feet, and that the time frame for that liability be extended to a year instead of six months.

The citizens commission suggested drillers be presumed liable for water contamination problems within 3,000 feet of a well and that the liability never expire. They also urged 3,000-foot setbacks from water sources, compared with the governor's report, which varies from 500 feet to 1,000 feet.

On some of the proposals, though, it was difficult to reach consensus among the broad group.

John Trallo, an activist from Sullivan County, said some wanted to see a temporary moratorium on drilling. Others urged a total ban on drilling and still others sought tougher regulations.

That debate over how long drilling should be idle prompted one member, Maya K. van Rossum, who heads the Delaware Riverkeeper Network, to announce Friday that she did not support the coalition's final product. She labeled the report "politically palatable" because it does not call for a temporary moratorium on all drilling permits.

Asked about Ms. van Rossum's comments, Mr. Surra said the report did call for a moratorium on state forests and game lands while impacts are being analyzed. The report also suggests that surface disturbance in state parks, where the government does not own most of the mineral rights, should not be allowed.

Myron Arnowitt, of Clean Water Action, which has been among the most outspoken on drilling issues, said the coalition did its best to represent the varying opinions.

"I think the commission tried to speak to what they heard and to be solution-oriented," he said. "The biggest frustration has been the lack of action. Everyone is frustrated that state government, despite all the talk, has ignored taking action this issue."

Patrick Henderson, Gov. Tom Corbett's energy executive and author of the administration panel's report, said they will review the new recommendations to see if any should be included in fall shale legislation.

Senate lawmakers from both parties also have been working on a retooled version of the drilling fee that Senate President Pro Tem Joe Scarnati, R-Jefferson, unveiled in April. His chief of staff, Drew Crompton, confirmed Monday that the revised approach is planned for a committee vote on Wednesday.

That proposal, which would charge drillers an initial annual fee of $40,000, may not look dramatically different from the spring version, but it is likely to be stronger from an environmental standpoint, said Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa, D-Forest Hills, who has worked with Mr. Scarnati on the drilling fee.

While a Senate panel vote on Wednesday would mean the chamber could send the measure to the House as soon as next week, both sides said there's still time for revisions.

"We are fairly far along towards a package of environmental safety reforms, but there may be some of their suggestions that should be included," Mr. Crompton said.


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


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