The Marcellus Shale industry voted Friday to recommend it be given access to Pennsylvania’s state forests in its quest for natural gas currently stored nearly two miles below the Commonwealth’s surface.
In its final meeting before submitting its recommendations to Gov. Tom Corbett, the Marcellus Shale Advisory Commission, on which the industry is predominantly represented, also recommended an impact fee to help counties pay for costs directly attributable to the gas extraction and transportation process.
Other recommendations included reactivating defunct rail lines to move gas extraction related materials; develop “green corridors,” with natural gas fueling stations every 50 miles, to encourage a switch from gasoline and diesel to natural gas fuel; and improve well monitoring and increase bonds to ensure money is available for remediation of accidents.
The Friday meeting was called to vote on accepting the recommendations of four workgroups that had, for the previous 113 days, been working on a mission intended, according to the Corbett administration and some legislators, to maximize profits and job creation with a minimum of environmental damage.
“One of the most significant challenges for us has been separating fact from fiction,” Lt. Gov. and MSAC Chairman Jim Cawley said as he opened the meeting.
Fact: There is a lot of money 8,000 feet below the shoes of many Pennsylvania residents and visitors, and maybe more below that. Fiction: We must be darned careful how we Pennsylvanians extract a portion of the booty, lest the natural gas production industry go somewhere else to replace a fossil fuel deposit it touts as equal to two Saudi Arabias.
For instance, Lycoming County Commissioner and MSAC member Jeff Wheeland cautioned against an impact fee, lest the industry stop its voluntary contributions to road repair in drilling areas. Noting that sales tax is up in areas where drilling has brought increased jobs and imported workers, both of which groups spend money where they are working, Wheeland said, “fund it (county expenses) through that rather than through (an impact fee).”
Wheeland pointed out Lycoming County is “nearing full employment (and) Bradford (County) is at full employment. He said the industry is hiring local residents and the cost of shale gas production to the county treasury is “very, very difficult to quantify.”
For its part, the industry appeared ready to support an impact fee, as long as it could be tied to actual expenses directly attributable to gas production operations – for instance, road repair and construction.
Ron Ramsey, Sr., Policy Advisor for The Nature Conservancy, suggested a provision that would earmark a portion of any impact fee for future, unforeseen needs, such as environmental effects not yet discovered or proven. Some of those effects might be discovered in counties other than where drilling actually is occurring, such as pollution poisoning water downriver from the wells.
Cawley responded by reminding the panel of his boss’s aversion to new taxes. Gov. Corbett has repeatedly reiterated his campaign promise to block new taxes on an industry that provided significant financial aid to his election.
“This provision draws perilously close to going from an impact fee to a tax,” Cawley said
In another significant vote that appeared to be along pro-industry vs. conservation agency lines, the panel overwhelmingly voted to allow state forest drilling. Earlier this year, DCNR told the commission about 700,000 acres would be available for Marcellus Shale development.
Opponents to the plan have cited potential massive segmentation of the pristine woodlands as five-acre parcels are cleared at the ends of new roads to make way for development of each well. Although industry proponents point out the wells, once drilled, capped and producing, will be reclaimed.
A presentation by Range Resources says the company would “work hard to restore property to a condition the same as or better than before the process began.”
The statement is accompanied by several photographs showing the well site, “roughly the size of a 1-2 car garage,” would be virtually unnoticeable in the new-grown pastures carved from the forest.
At meeting’s end, the recommendations were gathered up to be retyped and presented to Gov. Corbett. Only then will the complete list, as approved, be made available to the public.
The next step will be up to the legislature. What remains to be seen is whether the state’s lawmakers can agree on which regulations and fees to impose, and whether that job can be performed with the same alacrity as the industry’s speed at adding to the thousands of Marcellus wells it has drilled in the past three years.
Photo by Tom Owad
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