Pa. Considers Adding Natural Gas To Tax Rolls
HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) - The land agents, geologists and drilling crews rushing after the Marcellus Shale are raising something besides the natural gas they're seeking: Talk of a natural gas tax.
Thanks to a state Supreme Court decision six years ago, Pennsylvania is now one of the biggest naturalgas producing states - if not the biggest - that does not tax the methane sucked from beneath its ground.
But momentum is gathering to impose such a tax. The Marcellus Shale - a layer of black rock that holds a vast reservoir of gas - is luring some of the country's largest gas producers to Pennsylvania, and state government revenues are being waylaid by a worldwide economic malaise.
A spokesman for Gov. Ed Rendell says the administration is looking at the idea of a tax on natural gas, but a decision has not been made. Typically, Rendell does not reveal any tax or revenue proposals until his official budget plan is introduced each February.
Senate Republicans are planning a November hearing at Misericordia University in northeastern Pennsylvania to look at what effect can be expected on local governments if Marcellus Shale production lives up to its potential.
Local officials worry about damage to local roads ill-suited for heavy truck traffic and equipment. School districts could be strained by families of gas company employees moving into town. And some residents are concerned about gas wells disrupting or polluting the water tables from which they draw drinking water.
Legislators must find the fairest way for companies to share those costs, whether by levying a tax or through some other means, said Sen. Jake Corman, R-Centre, the GOP's policy chairman.
"I do think there is an understanding that some sort of compensation for municipalities is warranted,'' Corman said. "We just have to figure out the best way to do that.''
So far, drilling activity is under way on the Marcellus Shale in at least 18 counties, primarily in the northern tier and southwest where the shale is thickest, according to the state Department of Environmental Protection.
Land agents are trooping in and out of county courthouses to research the below-ground mineral rights. At least several million acres above the Marcellus Shale have been leased by companies in West Virginia, New York and Pennsylvania.
Just this week, Range Resources Corp. and a Denver-based gas processor said they have started up Pennsylvania's first large-scale gas processing plant, about 20 miles south of Pittsburgh.
And CNX Gas Corp. announced that a $6 million horizontal well it drilled in southwest Pennsylvania is producing a respectable 1.2 million cubic feet a day - a rate it expects to improve in coming weeks.
In the opposite corner of Pennsylvania, drilling pads are now visible on Susquehanna County's farmland, and hotel rooms are booked with land agents and drilling crews.
"It is the talk at the coffee shops, at the local grocery store, the gas station - everybody,'' said state Sen. Lisa Baker, R-Luzerne.
Activity is still in the early stages, as exploration companies work to confirm their basic assumptions about the potential of the Marcellus Shale reservoir, and probe for the spots with the greatest promise, analysts say.
Industry representatives say they oppose a tax, and Stephen W. Rhoads, the president of the Pennsylvania Oil and Gas Association, questioned the wisdom of imposing a tax on gas production that is still speculative.
In some natural-gas states, a tax is collected based on a company's gas production by volume.
But in Pennsylvania, the Supreme Court ruled in 2002 that state law did not allow counties, schools and municipalities to impose a real estate tax based on the value of the subsurface oil and gas rights held by exploration companies.
An appraiser's study presented last year during a House Finance Committee hearing estimated that the court's decision had cost Greene, Fayette and Washington counties up to $30 million in county, school and municipal tax revenue.
The state's county commissioners and school boards support the resumption of some type of taxing authority - although that could mean landowners would get smaller royalty checks.
Regardless, Doug Hill, the executive director of the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania, said the matter is one of basic fairness since coal, gravel and limestone are assessed.