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Sunday, November 6, 2011

Drilling war in Peters fought on the ballot

Sunday, November 06, 2011

Amid the sea of colorful, plastic campaign signs scattered around Peters are angrier, bolder signs flapping in the wind, screaming "VOTE NO!! Protect Your Township," and "Vote Yes! Protect Our Property Values."

They are part of the battle for the hearts and minds of voters in this affluent municipality of about 21,000 residents.

The fight, which has already garnered attention from the national media, pits residents and energy companies who advocate drilling in the Marcellus Shale gas formation against a citizens group that is seeking to ban it in Washington County's most populous municipality through a voter referendum on Tuesday.

"This issue is immense," said Ben Price, projects director for the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund, a Mercersburg, Pa.-based nonprofit that has assisted residents in Peters and other municipalities with getting referendums on the ballot to ban gas drilling. "We have to stop talking about it in terms of a fracking or drilling problem. They are all symptoms of a disease. It's the denial of fundamental rights of people."

» A website for ongoing coverage, resources, comments and more.
» Follow the Post-Gazette's coverage of the Marcellus Shale on Twitter at@pipelinePG.

The referendum in Peters is believed to be one of the first cases in the country in which voters will have a chance to have their voices heard regarding energy policy, specifically whether drilling -- and the controversial process of hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking" -- should be allowed in their neighborhoods.

There are similar referendums elsewhere in Pennsylvania. Voters in the city of Warren in Warren County and the borough of State College, home to Penn State and 42,000 residents, will decide on whether to approve a ballot proposal that would establish a Bill of Rights ensuring clean air and water. It would also ban gas well drilling, pipelines, compressor stations and related gas extraction activities.

All of these could be moot, however. Last week, an administration-drafted provision in natural gas drilling legislation moved out of a House committee
(and toward an anticipated quick vote ) that stated that all local rules for oil and gas operations would be superseded by state regulations. If both the Senate and House approve such legislation, state law would apparently trump all local efforts at regulating the industry.
Officials from each area have very different ideas about what the referendums could mean for their constituents.

While members of the citizens group Peters Township Marcellus Shale Awareness gathered more than 2,400 signatures to place the issue on the ballot in a debate they call "democracy at work," Peters officials have sided with drillers on this issue, spending thousands of tax dollars to defend an ordinance passed in August by township council members after 18 months of debate.

The ordinance limits Marcellus Shale gas drill sites -- and any other mineral extraction activities -- as a conditional use in a specially designed overlay district.
Drilling would be limited to parcels of at least 40 acres along main roads, and companies would be required to test water and soil before drilling and after hydraulic fracturing.

If the voter referendum is approved in Peters on Tuesday, it would immediately amend the municipality's home rule charter and override the ordinance passed by council.
Local officials in Peters and Warren mounted unsuccessful court challenges seeking to have the referendums stricken from the ballots, saying they flew in the face of the state's Oil and Gas Act, which regulates most aspects of gas well drilling, and the Municipalities Planning Act.

Peters council members are concerned that if the referendum passes, the township could go bankrupt trying to defend what they believe would be an "indefensible" position -- an illegal ban on gas well drilling.

"I am just really concerned," said Peters Councilman David Ball, who also believes such a ban would violate the Constitutional rights of the 774 local property owners who have signed Marcellus drilling leases since 2008. There has not been any drilling or permits issued in the township yet, though drilling in neighboring municipalities is abundant. "I don't see any way possible that it could prevail if challenged."

Mr. Ball's concerns were echoed by lawyer Leslie Peters, who last week came to talk to local residents about the ramifications of a yes vote on the referendum.
"This is clearly a ban on extraction and it violates the Oil and Gas Act," said Ms. Peters, who also called the referendum an "affront to common sense."

"It will be overturned."

On the opposite side of the issue is Peter Morris, a State College councilman and Mayor Elizabeth Goreham, who both support a drilling ban in their borough.
Mr. Morris said he doesn't believe that the threatened lawsuits will ever materialize.

"I'm not taking that fear seriously," he said. "I think it's worth the risk."
Peters Township Marcellus Shale Awareness member Sue Smith said she believes it's an important time for residents to take a stand, especially as the state Legislature last week began considering efforts that would strip local governments of any control over drilling activities.

"The only way to protect ourselves is to vote yes and have the chance of a Constitutional protection," she said. "It looks like the state is going to take control of this."
Activists of both sides of the debate also have voiced concern about the role of outside groups in shaping local policy.

The pro-drilling crowd has cited the free legal help Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund gave to residents in Peters, Warren and State College, while those who oppose drilling are wondering why special interest groups representing energy consumers have been mailing fliers to Peters homes, encouraging residents to defeat the ballot measure.

One of those groups, the nonprofit Consumer Energy Alliance, based in Houston, Texas, said in a statement that it is "engaged in the Marcellus Shale debate and more specifically, the Peters Township referendum, to ensure that consumers and businesses have a voice in the thoughtful development and utilization of Pennsylvania's energy resources. As a state and nation, we should be focused on responsibly accessing our abundant natural gas resources to ensure stable energy prices for business, agriculture, manufacturing and other energy consumers."

Mr. Ball said he feels anti-drilling activists are pursuing a showdown on the national stage and are using the residents of Peters to further their agenda.

"If someone pushes the issue, that's their right, but we on council have a right and an obligation to protect our township," Mr. Ball said.

But, Ms. Smith said drilling companies have already filed lawsuits against nearby municipalities over restrictive ordinances and have threatened to do the same in Peters. With such a scenario looming, residents may as well seek the most protection they can get, she said.

"They've already proven that they're going to sue over conditional use," she said. "Why do we think it's going to be any different here?"

Janice Crompton: jcrompton@post-gazette.com or 412-851-1867

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