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Pennsylvania is updating its Oil and Gas Act to catch up with a natural gas drilling boom. As part of that, the state is grappling with a complicated question: how much power should local governments have over hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, in their area? Fracking is a controversial method of extracting natural gas.
As Scott Detrow reports from member station WITF, the new law would restrict local governments.
SCOTT DETROW, BYLINE: Clarity and consistency is a phrase you hear batted around in Pennsylvania these days, by Republican officials who support the natural gas drilling industry and by the industry itself. They're talking about standardizing local regulation of drilling, so townships' and cities' restrictions on where drilling rigs can go, how loudly they operate, and how far they need to be from buildings, are roughly the same across the entire state.
Kathryn Klaber heads the Marcellus Shale Coalition, which represents drillers in Pennsylvania. She says, right now, regulations differ from community to community.
KATHRYN KLABER: It can be like the equivalent of needing to get a new driver's license for every state that you go through when you're traveling.
DETROW: And some places, like Pittsburgh, have passed outright bans on fracking. That's a move several New York communities are mirroring, in anticipation of drilling in the Empire State.
The measure before state lawmakers would assign a fee to each Marcellus Shale well. It would also set statewide guidelines for what local governments can and can't regulate. If a municipality went beyond the new guidelines, the state attorney general would have the power to sue the local government and ban it from receiving any impact fee money.
Governor Tom Corbett, a Republican, says streamlining local regulations will help grow an industry creating thousands of jobs. But Democratic State Senator Jim Ferlo says the legislation threatens democracy.
STATE SENATOR JIM FERLO: And the political action donors that have given millions of dollars to this governor and to those in political leadership in the House and the Senate — in the millions — could not have asked for a better piece of legislation.
DETROW: Actually, they could have. An earlier version of the bill, backed by Corbett, would have completely nullified all local regulation of natural gas drilling. The latest version doesn't negate local regulations, but sets strict limits. Townships would not be allowed to bar drilling in residential zones.
The head of Pennsylvania's township supervisors association called the earlier outright ban oppressive to local governments, but says his group can live with the new language. Not all local officials feel that way.
Brian Coppola sits on the board of supervisors in Robinson Township, a southwestern community where about 40 Marcellus Shale wells have been permitted. Coppola sees state-level restrictions on what local governments can regulate as a disaster, and thinks the latest bill is just as bad as the earlier across-the-board preemption.
BRIAN COPPOLA: I would say that anything that allows a heavy industrial use to go into our residential areas is preemption. Because that really is the foundation of zoning.
DETROW: Kathryn Klaber, the head of the Marcellus Shale Coalition, points out the flip side of a residential drilling ban.
KLABER: Well, I think who it really hampers is the private property owners. If I live in a, you know, in a residential area, don't I have the right to lease, you know, my natural gas?
DETROW: Pennsylvania's neighbor, Ohio, sits on top of shale deposits, too. The Buckeye State is ahead of Pennsylvania on this issue. It already enforces across-the-board zoning consistency. Klaber says if the law doesn't pass, more Pennsylvania drillers will go there.
The state House and Senate have passed two different versions of the bill. The differences will be hashed out over the coming weeks, with the goal of signing a bill into law by the end of the year.
For NPR News, I'm Scott Detrow in Harrisburg.
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