Pennsylvania says its drilling law trumps Pittsburgh's

PUC officials say city ban doesn't comply with Act 13

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HARRISBURG -- State officials say Pittsburgh's ban on natural gas production does not comply with Pennsylvania law, pointing to what they say are several issues within the stringent local ordinance.

Those recommendations, outlined in an advisory opinion from the Public Utility Commission dated Monday, were drafted in response to a February request from city solicitor Daniel Regan.

The commission is authorized to determine whether local drilling rules fall within the parameters set up in the new state law regulating natural gas production known as Act 13.

PUC officials delayed issuing opinions on local ordinances while the lawsuit challenging that statute was pending earlier this summer. They began working through a stack of requests last month after the law's zoning restrictions were overturned.

Pittsburgh's ordinance, passed in November 2010, is more restrictive than most of the other local rules before the commission.

It says gas production poses a "significant threat" to residents, and drilling permits issued by the state and federal governments will not be recognized in the city.

The PUC letter says that in banning gas extraction, the city encroached on the state's authority to create environmental regulations. Deeming that permits are invalid also conflicts with state law, states the letter.

The advisory opinion for Pittsburgh, like one issued last week for Fayette County, is nonbinding and carries no penalties for noncompliance.

Former city Councilman Doug Shields, who introduced the drilling ban, said he wasn't surprised by the PUC's opinion.

Mr. Shields said gas companies have been working behind the scenes to have the ban overturned by suggesting they'd reciprocate by building an office building in the city. He said that amounts to an industry "power play."

Council President Darlene Harris said the opinion, which uses terms such as "appears" and "most likely," does not provide a definitive assessment. She said she intends to leave the ban as is and believes that a majority of council members will take the same view.

"The reason the ban was put in place was for the health, safety and welfare of the residents," she said.

Mrs. Harris and Councilman Patrick Dowd said council didn't request the opinion and demanded to know why Mr. Regan asked for it.

Mayoral spokeswoman Joanna Doven said city lawyers sought the opinion to find out where the city stood legally. Mr. Ravenstahl opposes the drilling ban but did not direct Mr. Regan to seek the PUC's vetting, she said.

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Bureau Chief Laura Olson: lolson@post-gazette.com or 1-717-787-4254. Joe Smydo: jsmydo@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1548.


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