Recently, Pittsburgh city council members voted unanimously to pass an ordinance banning natural gas drilling in order to avoid the “significant threat to the health, safety and welfare of residents and neighborhoods within the city.” The ordinance to ban gas drilling was drafted by the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund, and sponsored by Councilman Doug Shields, who stated that “[t]his is an important statement being made today, and it’s not just the city of Pittsburgh . . . People are looking to this council and I think they are seeing something extraordinary here in that regard,” in discussing the city council’s decision.
Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl has 10 days to decide if he will pass, veto or not sign the bill. As of last week his office had no comment on the ban, but Ravenstahl has indicated that he opposes a ban. If he vetoes the ban, the city council will need 6 votes to override his decision. If he doesn’t sign the bill, it will become law.
Marcellus Shale in Pennsylvania
Pennsylvania is the center of Marcellus Shale activity. In the last 3 years, more than 2,000 wells have been drilled and thousands more are planned, as exploration companies are investing billions to pursue the natural gas reserves sitting underground. Although the gas drilling industry could dramatically stimulate Pennsylvania’s economy, Pittsburgh City Council President Darlene Harris indicated that the potential jobs created by Marcellus Shale drilling do not justify the significant risk to the community, “They’re bringing jobs all right . . . There’s going to be a lot of jobs for funeral homes and hospitals. That’s where the jobs are. Is it worth it?”
Just one day before the ban was passed, the commissioners of the Pittsburgh suburb of South Fayette unanimously approved a zoning ordinance that would prevent gas drilling in residential and conservation areas. Both the South Fayette and Pittsburgh bans prompted standing ovations upon their announcement, but not everyone is happy about the news of the prohibition on gas drilling. According to a statement issued by Kathryn Klaber, president of the Marcellus Shale Coalition,:
At a time when the natural gas industry is generating jobs and prosperity for tens of thousands of Pennsylvanians and economic development across the Commonwealth, it’s unfortunate that the council continues to maintain a shortsighted view regarding responsible shale gas development and its overwhelmingly positive economic, environmental and energy security benefits.
Klaber also stated that “the [Pittsburgh] vote represents a blow to the city’s weak financial standing, and at the same time is a straightforward attack on individual property rights.”
Other Limitations on Gas Drilling Across Pennsylvania
Although Pittsburgh is the first city in gas-rich Pennsylvania to ban the drilling of Marcellus Shale, the state has been cracking down on the practice. In addition to the recently passed South Fayette ban on residential drilling, the Board of Supervisors of Licking Township recently unanimously voted to prohibit the dumping of frack water, a byproduct of gas drilling, in the township.
Executive Order to Protect Pennsylvania Forest
Recently, Governor Ed Rendell signed Executive Order Number 2010-05 (Executive Order)imposing a moratorium, effective immediately, on any new natural gas development activities in Pennsylvania’s forests. In explaining the importance of the Executive Order, Rendell stated that:
We simply cannot risk subjecting these sensitive and high-value tracts to the same kind of environmental accidents and mishaps that have happened on private lands elsewhere in the state because of the drilling industry’s poor practices.
Rendell relied on a recent study conducted by the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources which determined that granting additional licensing would threaten the “environmental quality and character” of Pennsylvania forests.
Issuing more licenses also poses a risk to the Commonwealth’s existing certification that it manages its forests in a sustainable manner.
In the future, Pennsylvania will likely continue working to balance the competing interests of capitalizing on its natural resources, while protecting the environment and the health and safety of its citizens.