Compromise Allows PA Municipalities Some Drilling Oversight

As MDN recently pointed out, in Pennsylvania there is an ongoing tug-of-war between the state and local municipalities over how much local governments can regulate activities like zoning that impact shale gas drilling (see this MDN story). Local governments want the ability to allow or disallow drilling in certain areas. The state says that statewide laws should totally “preempt” local laws to ensure fairness and consistency and to avoid litigation by drilling companies which will cause millions in taxpayer money to defend.

There is a compromise coming in new legislation that will continue to allow local municipalities some control over drilling in their locales, while preserving most of the oversight for the state. It’s not a perfect solution, but both sides of the debate are signaling it may be the best solution they can jointly agree on.

If lawmakers do nothing else, they at least seem to have agreed on a way that supporters hope will avert legal clashes between municipalities and drilling companies: The House and Senate, both controlled by Republicans, in recent days have each passed legislation that would preserve but limit the ability of municipalities to control drilling activity.

The provision, which was nearly identical in the two separate bills, isn’t law yet: It was tucked into otherwise substantially different House and Senate bills that each addressed a wide range of issues around the industry’s pursuit of gas in the Marcellus Shale, believed to be the nation’s largest natural gas reservoir.

Working out the differences will take the chambers weeks, if not months—and not everybody is happy with the legislation. Even Gov. Tom Corbett, a Republican who is viewed as a staunch ally of the drilling industry, went to bat for the strongest alternative favoring the industry while pointing out that Ohio is trying to lure the industry with a law that completely pre-empts any local regulation.

But the provision on local ordinances, developed by Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati, R-Jefferson, at least has the support of a majority in each chamber as well as grudging support from some representatives of local governments and the industry.

"We would like to have more local control over the industry, as far as zoning and that kind of stuff, but we have to be realistic that we can’t only have as much as we would like to get," said Elam Herr of the Pennsylvania State Association of Township Supervisors. "What’s there today is workable and agreeable."

Representatives of two industry groups, Associated Petroleum Industries of Pennsylvania and the Independent Oil & Gas Association of Pennsylvania, said they were still studying the proposal.

The Marcellus Shale Coalition and one of the state’s most active drillers, Chesapeake Energy Corp. of Oklahoma City, both said they could accept Scarnati’s provision.

Kathryn Klaber, president of the Marcellus Shale Coalition, said that while her organization preferred the stronger pre-emption provision originally in the House Bill and backed by Corbett, the Senate’s provision "reflects a reasonable compromise that will address many of the difficulties that have plagued our industry regarding local zoning for the past several years."*

*AP/York Daily Record (Nov 19, 2011) – Pennsylvania tries to avert fights between towns, drillers