The gas industry’s sleight of hand: drilling away local rights
November 15, 2011
Apparently it’s not enough for the gas industry in Pennsylvania to turn a profit; receive hundreds of new permits a year; have special exemptions from U.S. environmental laws; and be fined for only a tiny fraction of violations committed. According to Marcellus Shale Coalition President Kathryn Klaber in the Philadelphia Inquirer, local zoning should also be eliminated for “posing a threat” to the industry.
But Ms. Klaber—along with Governor Corbett in a letter to legislators as they debate bills this week to gut local control in exchange for small drilling revenues—got a basic fact wrong. There is no patchwork of local regulation; the state has set, and will continue to be the entity to set, standards and rules for gas drilling.
What municipal governments can do is use zoning to determine where certain types of development occur. Municipal governments across Pennsylvania have enacted ordinances regarding Marcellus Shale gas drilling, for example to keep drilling out of residential neighborhoods, establish buffer zones around schools, limit light and noise, and give local officials time to review gas development plans before they’re approved. That's why municipal officials and organizations in the Pennsylvania Campaign for Clean Water (including Earthworks) have written to legislators protesting efforts to gut local control.
All of this is in keeping with Sections 603 and 604 of Pennsylvania’s Municipalities Planning Code, which vest local governments with the authority to address matters of environmental protection and preservation, including through zoning ordinances. Pennsylvania Supreme Court rulings make it clear that under the state Oil and Gas Act, municipalities have the right to use their zoning code to restrict the location of gas wells (just like they restrict other economic activities through zoning).
The proponents of state preemption of local zoning are essentially stating that development of natural gas is so paramount that industry should have the option to pursue it anywhere, anytime, and in any manner they want—even if it’s at the expense of other uses of land that local communities want, and even if municipal governments want to protect public health and the environment along the way.
Finally, with its efforts to gut local control, the gas industry is stepping into the realm of hypocrisy. Ms. Klaber states that to operate in a “safe, orderly, and efficient way,” the gas industry needs “regulatory certainty” and “consistency.” If this is a true goal, perhaps we can look forward to the end of intense lobbying efforts to block reversal of industry exemptions from major provisions of bedrock U.S. environmental laws that help ensure that all Americans are equally protected from risks to their health and environment.