Many towns draft 'proactive' drilling ordinances
Thursday, November 18, 2010
Councils in Bethel Park, McKeesport and Upper St. Clair have approved oil and gas drilling ordinances within the past two months, and at least seven more South Hills communities are working on similar legislation.
Peters Township is hosting a second public hearing early next month for further development of a possible conditional use permit for drilling in the community. Baldwin Borough, Baldwin Township, Forward Township, Green Tree, Jefferson Hills and South Park are also working on proposals.
While state law prohibits local governments from banning gas drilling, they can still adopt zoning policies to control the location of the drilling, noise and hours of operation.
Many of the communities that have passed or are considering legislation have not been approached by drillers. Municipal managers say their councils are just being proactive in case energy companies do decide to drill in their communities.
"If you don't have something in place and they come in, they pretty much have the right to do anything they want," said Jerry Duke, municipal planner in Bethel Park. "We're not allowed to regulate drilling, we're only allowed to regulate its use."
Bethel Park council approved an ordinance in September that gives potential drillers conditional use in all districts of the community, while also adhering to regulations posted by the state Department of Environmental Protection and the municipality's existing ordinances.
Upper St. Clair last week also approved a conditional use permit for the drilling of oil and gas wells.
As with Bethel Park, the township has not been approached by any energy companies to inspire legislation.
"We are just being proactive. There's other activity in the area," said Scott Bilhart, director of community development in Upper St. Clair, pointing to drilling activity in the township's neighboring communities of Cecil, Peters and South Fayette.
Peters will host its second public hearing on the topic at 7:30 p.m. Dec. 8 in the Peters Township Middle School auditorium.
While the first meeting last year was only attended by representatives from energy companies, a larger crowd is expected at the coming hearing.
Response from residents has been fairly split, according to Michael Silvestri, Peters manager.
A number of residents don't want to see any drilling, sometimes because of environmental concerns, and other property owners see it as a potential income source, he said.
"It's not an easy item to handle because there are a lot of questions about what authority municipalities have given the state's Oil and Gas Act," he said.
He said municipalities can't really control a lot of the driller's operational aspects, such as how far from a house a well can be placed and materials that are used. But a municipality does have some ability to control hours of operations and noise of operations, he said.
"Local governments are in a no-win situation. We're limited by the state and still responsible for the health and welfare of our residents,'' he said. "We're trying to regulate as much as we are allowed to to protect our residents.''
Concerns about Marcellus Shale drilling typically range from possible water contamination to the noise that a 24-hour drilling operation may cause, he said. .
Draft legislation in Peters calls for acoustic walls around the property being drilled upon, contact information for emergency situations and extra training for the fire department.
Being in contact with some of the larger gas companies and following drilling efforts in other Washington County communities during the past three years has helped Peters Township officials craft their legislation.
"We did have the advantage of their experience," he said. "We've been consulting neighboring municipalities, and I think all of our [ordinances] will be fairly consistent."
State reps. Matt Smith, D-Mt. Lebanon, and Jesse White, D-Cecil, both plan to host workshops in the new year to give community leaders the opportunity to learn more about Marcellus drilling.
The Marcellus Shale is said to be the biggest natural gas field in the United States --spanning nearly 61 million underground acres beneath Ohio, West Virginia, Pennsylvania and New York. Southwestern Pennsylvania is called the "fairway" of the shale by industry experts and its economic impact reaches beyond the energy in demand.
Local policitians have described it as Southwestern Pennsylvania's gold rush and the second coming of the coal and steel industries. Mr. Smith represents many South Hills communities in Allegheny County, and Mr. White represents many Washington County communities where most Marcellus shale sites were first drilled.
Mr. White has hosted such workshops previously and described them as "very frank" discussions.
"It's an opportunity to provide good information and shoot down misinformation," he said.
It's also an opportunity to learn about an industry that is evolving quickly, he said.
"What was important six months ago may not be the case today," he said.
He encouraged community leaders who are just beginning the process of establishing oil and gas drilling ordinances to "get information out early."
Green Tree officials are developing a draft that may be presented to council at the December meeting, according to Dave Montz, borough manager. Borough leaders are examining the most appropriate places in the community, while considering the health, welfare and safety of the residents, visitors and businesses. Mr. Montz also cited the noise and dust as potential downsides to having drilling occur in a community.
While Green Tree officials haven't received interest from a potential driller, he said the borough is just acting responsibly.
"This is happening all over the region," he said "Zoning law is a living and breathing document that is constantly changing."
It's not quite a front-burner issue in Baldwin Borough, but officials there are doing research and having discussions, said John Barrett, borough manager.
"There's the angle of potential revenue with the caveat of making sure we're doing the right thing environmentally," he said.
He said the borough solicitor Stanley Lederer is doing research and hopes to have legislation in place in case a company wants to drill in Baldwin.
"We're hoping to put something on the books soon. We need an ordinance council is agreeable to in case we get approached."
Candy Woodall, freelance writer; firstname.lastname@example.org.
Last night, July 1, the Cecil Twp Supervisors held a public hearing on 2 new proposed ordinances; one regulating natural gas processing stations and the other regulating compressor stations.
Both ordinances proposed that the processing stations and compressor stations be restricted to zoning district I-2 (heavy industrial). There are two I-2 districts in the township.
The township explained that MarkWest has a large processing station in nearby Houston, PA so they probably wouldn't need another processing station in Cecil. However, other companies may be contemplating a processing station so regulations are necessary.
There was some discussion about whether a compressor station or processing station could actually be placed in the I-2 zones and still meet the other requirements for distance from existing structures, property lines, etc.. The supervisors felt more investigation was needed.
A husband and wife from neighboring Mt Pleasant Twp that live near the Fulton compressor station told about their experiences with the compressor station noise and truck traffic. They had large color pictures and handouts to present. Very nice couple. Their experience didn't start out well and they ended up suing MarkWest personally to get the noise and dust from the truck traffic reduced.
They commended Cecil Twp for being proactive in dealing with the issues of compressor stations. They did say that the improvements MarkWest has implemented at the Fulton station made the situation much better. They wished they didn't have to sue to get the work done.
Reps from MarkWest explained that they want to be good neighbors and follow the rules and regulations but Mt Pleasant had prevented them from implementing the improvements because of a dispute over adding a 5th compressor to the station. They also explained that compressor stations are absolutely necessary to move the gas. Without them drilling would be useless.
Overall the meeting was one of the better meetings. Everyone was on their best behavior and good information was exchanged. The usual Obby whack jobs weren't there for some reason.