GOP lawmakers seek vote on Pa. drilling bill
HARRISBURG, Pa. - A final framework is at hand on sweeping legislation to impose an impact fee and update safety regulations on Pennsylvania's booming natural gas industry, top Republican state lawmakers say.
Republicans notified rank-and-file lawmakers Saturday night that they hope to hold votes this week on a framework reached by negotiators from the House, Senate and Gov. Tom Corbett's office during closed-door negotiations over the past six weeks. Pennsylvania is the only major gas-producing state that doesn't tax natural gas production.
"These discussions have progressed rapidly over the course of the last two weeks," House Speaker Sam Smith and House Majority Leader Mike Turzai said in a letter to lawmakers. "In fact, staff have been working throughout the weekend and will be working tomorrow in order to have a proposal that we can consider as early as this week."
According to summaries of the framework distributed to lawmakers, the impact fee would rise and fall with the price of natural gas and inflation. Counties that host the drilling would have the option of whether to impose the fee, but a critical mass of municipalities could override a refusal. Details of the exact fee were not included in the summaries.
The bill would increase the required distance between drilling and public water sources such as reservoirs, but not to the extent sought by Democrats, and it would require the state to develop regulations for transporting drilling wastewater and enforce qualifications of treatment plant operators.
Money from the impact fee and state forest drilling royalties would be distributed to a wide range of purposes, including bridge repairs, water and sewer plant improvements, statewide environmental cleanup programs and purchases of natural-gas fleet vehicles. Local governments would get 60 percent of the money from an impact fee, with 40 percent going to state programs or agencies.
It also would address a top priority of the natural gas industry and set limits to prevent municipal officials from imposing zoning ordinances that effectively prevent drilling there. A drilling operator could ask state utility regulators to review a local ordinance to determine whether it allows for "the reasonable development of oil and gas." If the Public Utility Commission or a state court decides that a local ordinance fails, the municipality would be unable to receive impact-fee money until it changes it.
Pennsylvania lawmakers have talked about whether to tax the natural gas industry since it arrived in earnest in 2008 to tap into the Marcellus Shale natural gas formation, considered the nation's largest-known natural gas reservoir. The drilling has drawn opponents who fear it is polluting the water supply.
The Marcellus Shale lies primarily beneath Pennsylvania, New York, West Virginia and Ohio. Pennsylvania is the center of activity, with more than 3,000 wells drilled in the past three years and thousands more planned as shale emerges as an affordable, plentiful and profitable source of natural gas.