Corbett asks drillers to safeguard water

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Gov. Tom Corbett has requested that shale gas drillers abide by river, stream and wetland protections eliminated by the state Supreme Court's December ruling that found key provisions of the state shale gas drilling law unconstitutional.

"I am calling upon Pennsylvania's oil and gas operators to honor both the spirit and intent of these setback provisions to continue helping us protect Pennsylvania's water and natural resources," said Mr. Corbett, who credited the law's collaborative rule setting with helping the state expand shale gas development "in a safe and responsible way."

The governor, who supported passage of the oil and gas law called Act 13, has been critical of the Supreme Court decision that upset the industry and its political supporters. Last week, the Corbett administration asked the court to reconsider its 4-2 ruling that sided with seven Pennsylvania municipalities, a doctor and a river advocacy organization in declaring unconstitutional the law's provisions overriding local zoning laws and giving the state Department of Environmental Protection too much discretion to grant waivers of the 300-foot setbacks around waterways.

But the DEP already has the power to establish the 300-foot waterways setbacks included in Act 13, under existing state and federal water laws or in individual drilling permit restrictions, said Mark Szybist, an attorney specializing in oil and gas issues with Citizens for Pennsylvania's Future, a statewide environmental organization.

"It's clear the DEP has the power under other statutes to establish new setbacks or deny permits that would have an adverse impact on the state's water resources," Mr. Szybist said. "What we haven't heard and what I'd like to know is what approach DEP will take and what its strategy will be."

Patrick Henderson, the governor's deputy chief of staff and energy executive, said he disagrees with that legal position and the court ruling requires a legislative remedy.

"We want the setbacks on the books," Mr. Henderson said. "The governor wants them to be the law of the land and that will provide stronger underpinnings."

Mr. Corbett made his request to the shale gas development industry Monday, even though the DEP said that since the ruling it has received no applications for drilling within the 300-foot setback established by Act 13.

The news release announcing the governor's request said it was made directly to oil and gas trade associations -- including the Marcellus Shale Coalition, the Associated Petroleum Industries of Pennsylvania and the Pennsylvania Independent Oil and Gas Association -- and all have indicated they will comply.

In confirming compliance with the governor's request, Dave Spigelmyer, president of the Marcellus Shale Coalition, said the industry is committed to working with communities, regulators and elected officials to "make certain that we have predictable and workable policies in place aimed at maximizing the benefits of natural gas for all while protecting our environment."


Don Hopey: dhopey@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1983.

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