2011-03-31 / Local & State

Corbett’s Natural-gas Panel Begins Its Work

By Peter Jackson

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) – Members of Gov. Tom Corbett’s Marcellus Shale Advisory Commission left their first meeting Friday with plenty to think about during the four months they have to recommend how state can best stoke the economic potential of natural-gas drilling and stave off environmental problems within the constraints the Republican governor has imposed.

The commissioners were briefed on legal and technical issues by the state’s top natural-gas regulator, shown slide presentations by experts who have researched the economic and social implications of the drilling that is proliferating in northern and western Pennsylvania, and blasted by several citizens who are angry about what they view as the state’s weak response to water pollution and other issues.

“I moved up here to be at peace with nature,’’ said Joanne Fiorito of Tunkhannock in Wyoming County. “You have now ripped my American dream apart, and I am appalled and outraged.’’

Others, such as Bradford County commissioner Doug McLinko, were far more enthusiastic.

“We have a climate change in Bradford County – the climate is, family farms are being saved, mom and pops are seeing so much prosperity that they’ve never seen before,’’ he said. “The best unemployment gauge in Bradford County: if you want to go to work, you can find a job.’’

Lt. Gov. Jim Cawley, who leads the panel, presided over the fivehour session at the downtown headquarters of the Department of Environmental Protection.

Seated facing one another were panelists who represented the natural gas industry, including multinational corporations like Exxon- Mobil and Chevron, as well as conservation groups like the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and the Nature Conservancy, organizations representing county and municipal governments and a geosciences professor from Penn State.

Also on the commission are Corbett’s nominees to head the DEP and the state departments of Community and Economic Development, Conservation and Natural Resources, Transportation and Agriculture. All five are in place on an acting basis pending Senate confirmation of their appointments. Corbett pledged in his March 8 budget address to appoint the panel.

Cawley urged the panelists to imagine life in Pennsylvania decades from now if state officials make the right decisions.

“I see a Pennsylvania leading the nation into energy independence – a pride in Pennsylvania, where schools, libraries, municipal buildings and prisons are powered by clean, efficient Pennsylvania natural gas, where school buses, PennDOT trucks, police cars and our personal vehicles have all been converted with natural gas engines,’’ he said. “I see a Pennsylvania where tens of thousands of Pennsylvanians are working in a natural gas industry and thousands more are working in related fields.’’

Cawley said the panelists are likely to consider the prospect of empowering local governments to levy an “impact fee’’ to help pay for highway repairs and other effects of natural-gas drilling.

Local governments will have to demonstrate a clear need for an impact fee before it would be seriously considered as one of the recommendations they must make to the governor by July, he said.

“It will be a discussion point,’’ he told reporters. “We want to understand what the actual impact is.’’

But a statewide severance tax “is off the table,’’ Cawley said emphatically. “It is not something that is going to be considered by us.’’

Corbett, a Republican who accepted nearly $1 million in campaign contributions from the industry and promised during last year’s campaign not to raise state taxes, made similar comments Wednesday. Cawley said he wanted to dispel any confusion after the severance-tax issue surfaced during the meeting.

When drilling companies began flocking to Pennsylvania several years ago to exploit the gas in the Marcellus Shale formation, they were largely working under laws from the 1980s that never envisioned deep-drilling activity that produces millions of gallons of often toxic wastewater.

So far, the Legislature has done little, other than pass a bill to require faster public disclosure of well-by-well gas production data from Marcellus Shale wells and debate the merits of a gas extraction tax. Pennsylvania remains the largest gas-drilling state without such a tax.

Last year, the Department of Environmental Protection won approval of tougher regulations on drilling safety, chemical disclosure and wastewater disposal that, so far, the industry isn’t publicly clamoring for Corbett to repeal. It also won regulatory approval to increase permit fees so that it could pay the salaries of more inspectors and permitting staff.

But Pennsylvania has left a number of protections undone, some lawmakers say.

Some lawmakers want to increase the minimum distance between Marcellus Shale wells to minimize the environmental impact on drilling regions. Some also want to expand the buffer that is required between shale wells and wetlands or water sources.

In addition, Pennsylvania’s $1,000 per day penalty on drillers for violating state regulations lag many other states. The $25,000 per-company insurance bond that the state requires to plug abandoned wells is out of date, as well, since plugging a single well can cost as much as $100,000.

At the top of the industry’s wish list is a controversial provision called pooling, which could be used to force holdout landowners, under certain conditions, to lease their belowground gas rights, and limits on the ways that municipal zoning ordinances could affect drilling activity.

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