Local officials recoil at gas law's contents
Share with others:
We need to elect better poker players to represent us in Harrisburg.
Pennsylvanians have been sitting on an unbelievable hand: the largest natural gas field outside of Iran, located a half-continent closer to the vast East Coast markets than the traditional drilling states.
The industry has boomed under the current zoning laws. America's Largest Full-Time State Legislature and our governor nonetheless joined forces recently to give us a new law that takes away local governments' ability to restrict drilling in residential areas. Critics say this "industry bill'' includes language that seems to keep drilling away from homes and other buildings, but that a driller could drive a truck through the loopholes.
Brian Coppola, chairman of the board of supervisors in Robinson, Washington County, says the township will pursue legal action to have the law tossed out. Although Gov. Tom Corbett signed the bill only Monday night, Mr. Coppola says he has taken calls from representatives of 50 to 75 other municipalities he expects to join in the suit.
"I'm a very conservative Republican,'' Mr. Coppola said, "unlike all the Republicans who voted for this in Harrisburg. Land grabs are not part of my vocabulary.''
The industry has a different view of this law, which also allows for a per-well fee. Kathryn Klaber, president of the Marcellus Shale Coalition, said the legislation increases costs, but "while not perfect, provides the industry with greater certainty to operate across Pennsylvania and takes a balanced approach to further strengthening the commonwealth's forward-leaning health, environmental and safety regulations."
Mr. Coppola and other critics say phooey; this law goes overboard in acceding to the industry's quest for more uniformity. While that's a legitimate desire -- Pennsylvania has more than 2,500 municipalities, each with its own rules -- this law "has taken our entire system of government and turned it upside down," he said.
"You have no predictability in your neighborhood now.''
He doubts most lawmakers knew what they were approving. (The new law is 174 pages, so a legislator could blow through an entire per diem just buying enough coffee to stay awake through the whole thing.)
The contention is over the bits that say a local government can't impose limitations on oil and gas operations that are any stricter than those on other industries. That may sound fair, but other industries are largely restricted to industrial zones. Gas drilling operations can be anywhere. Although an unconventional gas well has to be at least 500 feet from the nearest building or water well, another part of the law says "the well operator shall be granted a variance'' under certain circumstances.
Critics view that as no protection at all.
There's little sense in rewriting local ordinances to catch up with this law because "there's not a whole lot you can do,'' said John Smith, the Robinson Township solicitor.
Pittsburgh Councilman Patrick Dowd, who considers himself a moderate on drilling matters, said this law "flies in the face of what most Pennsylvanians understand as far as property rights." Councilman Bill Peduto says it's more lax than the law in Texas, and he doesn't like the way it was hashed out in Harrisburg.
"What if we had meetings at midnight to exempt bakeries from any local zoning laws?" Mr. Peduto asked.
That might be answered with another rhetorical question: When was the last time the bakery lobby put up real money in campaign contributions?
Mr. Coppola believes this affects everyone. Those who live in affluent, densely populated areas may think the industry can't drill there, but the waivers offer wide latitude. There's also the fact that a lot of property owners don't own the gas rights to their own land. They may not know that, he said, but the owner of those gas rights "has every right to your surface land to access your gas.
"What regulated that use was local zoning," Mr. Coppola said. "That's all out the window now. This is why we're all screaming about this thing.
"The guys in Allegheny County better wake up because it's going to hit there real soon."
First Published February 16, 2012 12:00 am