HARRISBURG -- A last-minute regulatory exemption for a little-known geologic basin had lawmakers scratching their heads and drilling opponents decrying what they perceived as unequal treatment during Saturday's flurry of action in the state Capitol.
A provision added to a budget measure on Friday -- and approved Saturday evening -- would temporarily prevent oil and gas drilling permits from being issued for the South Newark Basin, which stretches from New Jersey into Bucks and Montgomery counties in southeastern Pennsylvania. It is scheduled to expire in 2018.
Lawmakers from Western Pennsylvania who had opposed the shale-drilling law approved in February as offering too few protections, condemned it as a special carve-out for southeastern residents.
"Where was our study? Where was our six years?" asked Democratic Rep. Jesse White, who represents a portion of Washington County that hosts a significant amount of Marcellus Shale drilling. "What makes Bucks and Montgomery [counties] so special?"
The basin has garnered attention due to a recent U.S. Geological Survey estimating that it could contain a significant reserve of natural gas within its various layers.
While drilling has not yet occurred in Bucks County, Arbor Operating LLC has been issued four conventional drilling permits since 2007 and another request from Butler-based Turm Oil is under review by the state Department of Environmental Protection.
Drilling cannot begin there until the Delaware River Basin Commission approves regulations for gas extraction, lifting an effective moratorium on a portion of Eastern Pennsylvania.
Still, residents concerned about potential drilling activity have pressured Republican lawmakers who supported the new drilling law approved in February, such as Sen. Chuck McIlhinney, to reverse the zoning restrictions for their area.
Mr. McIlhinney, R-Bucks, told reporters in April that he would push for the law to no longer apply to conventional drilling in southeastern counties. He did not respond to several requests for comment.
The provision added on Friday doesn't exclude the counties from zoning components of the shale-drilling law, though it does prevent permits from being issued until a state study is completed and county officials vote on an impact fee. The ban will expire in 2018 if those conditions are not met.
Republicans rejected arguments that the change was inserted at the 11th hour to appease southeastern GOP lawmakers, instead defending it as a necessary pause for a different type of gas extraction.
"We did not want to affect shallow-gas drilling in the commonwealth through any Marcellus Shale process," said Senate President Pro Tem Joe Scarnati, who shepherded this year's shale-drilling law. "Inadvertently, we caught some of the shallow-gas drilling in that region."
Some Democrats protested that allowing an exception for drilling in one section of the state conflicts with the arguments made during the impact-fee debate about the importance of consistent regulations for gas companies.
"We were here four months ago under the guise of, we had to have uniformity, we had to have consistency, we needed to be fair," Mr. White said. "And now, four months later, we're saying, 'Maybe, for whatever reason, we're going to give a few people a pass.'"
A spokesman for the Marcellus Shale Coalition said in a statement that plans for development in the area are limited, but called it "shortsighted to prevent private property owners from leasing and accessing their mineral rights."
Harrisburg Bureau Chief Laura Olson: firstname.lastname@example.org or 717-787-4254.