Bay Journal

PA to charge gas drillers impact fee, takes away local governments’ right to restrict sites

  • By Rona Kobell on March 13, 2012

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett signed legislation in February that would charge natural gas drillers an impact fee that would help pay for mitigation and environmental programs. But the measure also takes away local governments' rights to restrict drilling if they accept the money.

The fee would raise about $180.5 million in 2011 and $211.1 million in 2012, according to projections reported in Pennsylvania Environmental Digest. The gas industry supported the bills.

The fee would fluctuate with the price of natural gas, but would start at $40,000 per well. Beneficiaries of the fee would include counties, municipalities and state funds, such as Growing Greener, that are focused on environmental protection.

The legislation also establishes setbacks for wells from water supplies, streams and wetlands, although the state's Department of Environmental Protection can grant a variance if the driller asks for it. It requires the restoration of well-drilling pads within nine months, although the company can take up to two years under certain conditions, such as unfavorable weather. It also requires well operators to keep records going back five years of the number of gallons of wastewater produced during drilling, how they were transported and disposed of, and who disposed of them. The bills require companies to disclose chemicals in the fracking fluids, but have exemptions on that requirement to protect trade secrets.

The bills override local governments' ability to dictate where companies can drill. Local restrictions can't be stronger for natural gas operations than they are for other industrial practices. And local governments can't keep compressor stations out of residential areas - the bill classifies them as a permitted use in agriculture and industrial zoning and a conditional use everywhere else.

Environmental groups were divided on the legislation. The Chesapeake Bay Foundation's Pennsylvania director, Matt Ehrhart, called it "a tremendous step forward." Paul King, president and CEO of the Pennsylvania Environmental Council, had a practical outlook.

"The enemy of the good is the perfect, and while this legislation is not perfect, the people of Pennsylvania are better served by passage of this bill now than to wait another year or longer for something stronger," he said.

But several environmental groups decried the legislation, especially because they say the provision was hammered out behind closed doors. They include Clean Water Action, PennEnvironment, Earthworks and the Delaware Riverkeeper Network. Of particular concern is that the state's towns and counties have lost their ability to restrict drilling in certain areas, putting industrial practices close to schools, playgrounds, hospitals and areas with sensitive natural resources.

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About Rona Kobell

Rona Kobell is a former writer for the Baltimore Sun. .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

Read more articles by Rona Kobell

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