Both the House and Senate added language into their Marcellus Shale bills this week requiring local governments to allow natural gas wells to operate in all zones, including residential. The near identical sections in HB 1950 and SB 1100 also empower Pennsylvania’s Attorney General to serve as the judge of whether or not a municipality’s drilling ordinances are ‘reasonable’. Under the provisions, the Attorney General can bar a township or borough from receiving any impact fee revenue. The Attorney General would also have the power to bring suit against the offending municipality in Commonwealth Court.
Senate Bill 1100 does not preempt local municipalities from passing zoning ordinances related to natural gas development. Simply, it allows an operator or person with a royalty interest to developable land to request the Attorney General to review a local ordinance to determine whether it allows for the reasonable development of oil and gas. This is consistent with Pennsylvania’s ACRE program which settles disputes between the agricultural community and local governments. The zoning provision in the legislation still allows municipalities to impose restrictions including: setbacks, lighting and noise restrictions consistent with other industrial activities in a zoning district and applicable state laws or regulations. Furthermore, if a municipality determines that no well site can be placed so that a well head is at least 500 feet from an existing building in a residential district, the municipality retains the power to prohibit oil and gas operations or permit it as a conditional use.
The legislation requires municipalities’ ordinances to ‘provide for the reasonable development of minerals’. What’s reasonable? By and large, that’s for the Attorney General and the Commonwealth Court to decide. But the bills both set parameters local governments would be required to follow. Municipalities would have to:
- Complete permit reviews within thirty days.
- Allow oil and gas operations and impoundment pools in all zones, including residential.
- Allow compressor stations and natural gas processing plants in agricultural and industrial zones.
- Keep drilling regulations in line with existing construction and industrial zoning. That means a township wouldn’t be able to set one standard for noise emitted by compressor stations, and another for factories within its borders.
The legislation also sets a mandatory 300 foot buffer zone between well pads and residential buildings. Compressor stations would need to be 750 feet from buildings, and could not exceed a sound of 60 decibels at the adjoining property line.
Why the standards? Drew Crompton, the chief-of-staff for Senate President Pro Tem Joe Scarnati, explained they’re meant as a way to keep municipalities from enacting effective moratoriums on drilling within their boundaries. It prevents ‘silly ordinances’ aimed at keeping drillers away he explained, like bans on water trucks within municipal limits. ‘That is unreasonable,’ he said, ‘and makes the industry go nutty. …This is meant to set baselines to prevent that from occurring.’…the legislation would allow the Attorney General to file suit against the local government in Commonwealth Court, in order to invalidate the ordinance. Effectively, the Pennsylvania Attorney General would be suing on behalf of an aggrieved drilling company. If a special master appointed by Commonwealth Court rules on the driller’s behalf, the court would have the power to make the municipality pay both sides’ legal fees.
This legislation made sweeping changes to the Oil and Gas Act which were previously updated in 1984. As I have said before, protecting the environment was one of the most important issues surrounding the natural gas discussions, and this legislation does just that. SB 1100 would:
- Restrict a well from being located within 1,000 feet of a public water supply source defined in the Safe Drinking Water Act;
- Triple the setback distance from streams from 100 feet to 300 feet
- Triple the distance of presumed liability for contamination for the operator from 1,000 feet to 3,000 feet
- More than double the setback distance from an existing building or personal water well from 200 feet to 500 feet
- Increase well bonding limits from $25,000 to $600,000
- Increase civil penalties from $25,000 to $75,000
- Require disclosure of hydraulic fracturing components
- Require the department to adopt regulations regarding the transportation of wastewater.
Responsible Drilling Alliance, Board of Directors
Address: Responsible Drilling Alliance, Box 502, Williamsport PA 17703