Shale drilling fees top agenda
Share with others:
HARRISBURG -- The state General Assembly's monthlong hiatus is over, and looming large atop the 2012 agenda is completing a Marcellus Shale regulatory and fee measure.
That debate stopped short when lawmakers and the governor were unable to reach a compromise regarding the proposals that passed each chamber in November.
In the interim, top aides for Republican legislative leaders and Gov. Tom Corbett have been meeting to negotiate how large an impact fee should be assessed on gas drillers, who should collect that levy and what role local governments should play in regulating the industry's activities.
"We've narrowed down the issues, and the next thing is for the leaders and myself to take those remaining issues and work them out," said Mr. Corbett on Monday, declining to specify which issues remain unresolved.
While Mr. Corbett and others assert that "significant" progress has been made, there's a bevy of suggestions awaiting lawmakers in Harrisburg, both in person and in their mailboxes.
Various groups opposed to the drilling legislation -- including Clean Water Action, the state's Sierra Club chapter and PennEnvironment -- will be holding a rally today to speak out against provisions they say would "pre-empt" municipal zoning rules.
That outrage has been directed primarily at the Corbett administration's position that the state's Oil and Gas Act should supersede all local regulations on the industry. The current versions tweaked that, seeking instead to allow the state attorney general to decide whether a contested local drilling ordinance is "reasonable."
There also have been a series of letters from supporters and opponents seeking to sway lawmakers.
"Local municipalities are the watchdogs where the state cannot always see," wrote Robinson manager Richard Ward, in a note opposing zoning changes. "We are the 'boots on the ground' keeping the industry honest."
The Marcellus Shale Coalition and Associated Petroleum Industries of Pennsylvania penned their own entreaty to lawmakers, asking that the July recommendations of the governor's Marcellus Shale Advisory Commission -- on which a coalition representative served -- be adopted.
"These enhanced standards are not without cost," the two organizations wrote. "Exceeding them only will result in an overly burdensome regulatory environment which will be factored in when investment decisions are made."
The industry groups also noted their support of the lower House-approved fee scale, which would charge the driller $160,000 over 10 years of a well's production.
The Senate fee would be assessed for 20 years, starting at $50,000, for a total of $360,000 per well.
It remains unclear how soon those policy discussions will turn into legislative votes, although those involved expressed cautious optimism on Monday.
"I think there's a goal by all of us to have it done before the budget, and before the budget address if we can get it done that quickly," Mr. Corbett said. "I don't know that it will, but it would be nice if it did."
Spokesmen for top House and Senate Republicans agreed that divisions have grown smaller. But those could grow again if a measure is not completed before the governor's Feb. 7 budget address, which is expected to outline another round of deep cuts to state programs.
"Members' spending priorities are likely to change after that, which significantly cuts back the probability of getting a shale bill to the governor's desk," said Drew Crompton, chief of staff to Senate President Pro Tem Joe Scarnati, R-Jefferson.
Beyond a comprehensive Marcellus Shale measure, the Senate's to-do list for this week includes giving a final vote to a measure that would require GPS coordinates to be posted at the entrance to all gas-drilling sites.
They also are scheduled to begin work on a bill authorizing the additional 60 days of federally funded benefits for unemployed workers. Those benefits were set to expire on Feb. 4, but congressional legislation approved in late December allows states to again extend assistance checks.
The state House of Representatives will be considering a measure that would require anyone applying for public benefits to show proof of citizenship.
They also are expected to vote on a measure to limit punitive damages in physician lawsuits.
Other issues, including whether the four state-related schools (the University of Pittsburgh, Penn State University, Temple University and Lincoln University) should be included under the state's Right to Know Law, are not likely to come up for consideration before the governor's budget address. There are several proposals to include the state-related schools under the Right to Know Law, as all the state-owned schools in Pennsylvania are.
Introduced in response to the Penn State scandal, the measures await committee votes, and are expected to be a part of heated discussions over funding for those schools.
First Published January 17, 2012 12:00 am