Local leaders oppose shale bill
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Of the more than 200 representatives from 44 municipalities in seven counties who attended a Marcellus Shale town hall meeting Tuesday night in Green Tree, not one supported pending legislation now being considered by the state House and Senate.
The answers became clearer with stories such as one told by Brian Coppola of Robinson.
Mr. Coppola, a supervisor in that Washington County township, showed his colleagues slide photos of a processing plant that was built in 2008 by Atlas Energy with no notification to the township.
"That was not a permitted use in that zoning district," he said of the plant, used to process natural gas tapped from the Marcellus Shale.
Mr. Coppola said the township didn't find out about the plant for six months.
Afterward, the township sued the company and levied a fine of $150,000 for violations of the township's zoning laws.
The company paid it, he said, then expanded the plant --also without township permission --"while we were in court," he said.
For a year, Mr. Coppola said, he and his fellow supervisors couldn't persuade agents from the state Department of Environmental Resources to investigate.
Local officials said that example of a drilling company running roughshod over zoning and planning rules is precisely why maintaining local control over certain aspects of gas well drilling is so important.
"They are going to be here forever," Pittsburgh Councilman Doug Shields said of drillers. "They are going to take and take and take, and you'll have nothing to say about it."
Earlier this month, both the Senate and House passed shale-related bills that would eliminate local governments' power to regulate most aspects of gas well drilling and its related infrastructure, such as compressor stations and processing plants.
As late as Wednesday, legislators were scrambling to hammer out a compromise before year's end to send to Gov. Tom Corbett, who favors state control.
The bills, which vary in their level of local pre-emption, also call for impact fees that would be divvied among municipalities, counties and the state.
Those gathered at the town hall meeting --the first such forum of its kind --didn't discuss the impact fees but were very concerned with plans to curb local oversight.
Drilling companies also favor statewide rules, expressing frustration with the patchwork of regulations that varies widely among the state's 2,563 municipalities.
Local officials attending Tuesday night's meeting at the Green Tree municipal center urged one another to contact their legislators and ask them to vote against --or at least table --the issue for now.
Legislators couldn't attend the town hall meeting because they were in Harrisburg for the end of the legislative session, but staff members for state Reps. Bill Kortz, D-Dravosburg, and Jesse White, D-Cecil, also urged municipal officials to make their feelings known --and quickly.
Mr. Kortz's chief of staff, Mark Purcell, said his office is hearing "very little" feedback about the bills.
"You've got to get out there and get your municipalities to pass resolutions," Mr. Purcell told officials. "This is the first major meeting I've been sent to about this issue."
Officials also heard a pep talk from Mr. Shields, who encouraged them to look at the big picture. He said local officials need to assert their rights now, during what he dubbed "a fundamental moment in Pennsylvania."
"This is a deliberate campaign" by the industry to push the legislation, Mr. Shields said. "They have a clear goal. We don't."
With some drillers earning a 50 percent return on investment, Mr. Shields expects the 3,000 or so drilling sites now in Pennsylvania to expand to 50,000 within the next 10 years.
"This is about money -- the scope of which nobody in this room can wrap their brains around," he said. "This is trillions of dollars."
He also expects worldwide energy companies, such as Exxon and Chevron, to become more involved in shale development.
"They are going to make a boatload of money," he said. "The giants are on the doorstep."
First Published December 15, 2011 12:00 am