With Pennsylvania’s Marcellus Shale train rushing down the tracks nearly 3,100 wells drilled, two-thirds just since 2010 the present seems like a good time to adopt measures to protect health and the environment.
Yet as legislators drag their feet on regulatory change, another measure is gaining traction: adoption of a severance tax or impact fee. This is critical to ensure that the companies profiting from drilling also pay for the pollution, infrastructure damage, and safety risks that result, rather than continuing to make taxpayers foot the bill. (According to the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center, the lack of a severance tax has already cost the state $190 million since late 2009.)
Unfortunately, even this step in the right direction is tainted. An impact fee bill (SB1100) by Senate President Joe Scarnati would force municipalities to give up their zoning rights in exchange for revenues effectively holding cash-strapped municipalities hostage to gas development. The legislation promotes a model ordinance that would force communities to allow more drilling and give up any restrictions on quality of life-killing light, noise, and hours of operation. And it could soon be headed for a vote (now with an amendment to prevent any revenue from going to parks or open space conservation.
Senator Scarnati and the co-sponsors of SB1100 must be listening to the politically powerful voice of the Marcellus Shale Coalition whose gas industry members bankrolled the campaigns of Sen. Scarnati and many of his colleagues (as well as Governor Corbett), and which seems to be asking for payback in the form of decimated local control.
But Pennsylvania’s citizens are also speaking loudly, and aren t about to swallow such a bitter pill without a fight. They re signing a petition telling their elected officials to vote against the bill should it come to the House or Senate floor. And 30 citizens and environmental organizations have signed a letter opposing the bill.
They know that local decisionmaking is part of a democratic society, and that laws to ensure it must be respected. The Pennsylvania Municipalities Planning Code gives local governments the authority over issues influencing local environmental protection and the state Oil and Gas Act gives municipalities the right to apply zoning to the location of gas wells (just like other economic activities), as affirmed by the State Supreme Court.
Even at a time when Pennsylvania sorely needs revenue, the rights of citizens and municipalities is much too high a price to pay.