Corbett panel's report sets guidelines for Marcellus drilling

Posted: July 17, 2011

Anybody who hoped Gov. Corbett's Marcellus Shale Advisory Commission might call for a halt to natural gas drilling missed the whole point of the exercise - the issue was not whether drilling will take place in Pennsylvania, but how it will be conducted.

The 30-member commission, weighted heavily with business and political leaders who support natural gas extraction, on Friday unanimously approved a set of recommendations whose details are still under wraps. A final report will be delivered to Corbett by Friday.

Broadly speaking, the recommendations endorse the industry's call for modernizing the regulatory structure of shale-drilling and creating uniform local zoning rules to streamline approval processes. The commission also endorsed boosting markets for the fuel with incentives for using natural gas in transportation, electric generation, and manufacturing.

Legislative leaders were quick to note that the recommendations are not binding, and that elected officials retain the authority to enact regulations as they see fit.

But observers said the commission's recommendations would carry substantial political weight in the legislative debates to come, and could form the framework around which a political agenda is built.

"I think that everybody is going to use the commission's recommendations down the road - they'll say, 'Look, the commission recommended this,' " said Myron Arnowitt, state director for Clean Water Action, who found much lacking in the panel's conclusions.

Industry leaders came away with a more positive perspective on the process, which endorsed the economic promise of shale gas over its perils.

David Callahan, vice president of the Marcellus Shale Coalition, an industry trade group, said the recommendations were "a constructive way" to deal with a host of drilling-related matters, including environmental protection, health issues, and emergency response.

"But at the same time, they recommend continuing the further and responsible development of the Marcellus for the benefit of us all," he said.

The commission's two most controversial recommendations could create some discomfort for Corbett.

The commission recommended an unspecified impact fee on drillers to compensate local governments for the environmental and social costs of drilling, but would not pay for new services, such as enhanced recreational facilities.

"Heaven forbid that an impact fee should go to improve the quality of life in the Marcellus region," said Jan Jarrett, president of Citizens for Pennsylvania's Future.

The commission also endorsed the idea of "forced pooling," which would allow drilling companies to force landowners who have not leased their mineral rights into a pool of property owners if their neighbors had signed leases. Typically, drilling companies aren't allowed access to the surface of an unwilling landowner's property, but they can harvest natural gas below and pay royalties to the landowners.

Forced pooling is permitted in many states, but it is not currently allowed in the Pennsylvania Marcellus. The industry wants it because it makes drilling more efficient by requiring fewer wells. But Corbett, citing property-rights issues, is opposed.

Jarrett, the PennFuture president, said most environmental groups oppose forced pooling on the ground that people who do not want to lease their land should not be forced to do so. "I think [environmentalists] believe that somehow that will stop drilling, but it could also result in more drilling as operators put up more rigs to get to the accessible gas," she said.

The recommendations did contain some good news for environmentalists. The commission suggested creating greater buffers between gas wells and waterways and structures, and imposing bigger fines on violators. It also recommended that the Department of Health monitor health effects in drilling areas.

But the panel also endorsed more leasing of state forests for natural gas extraction, a discouraging development for John Quigley, the state's former secretary of conservation and natural resources.

"Nobody has seen the actual language," he said. "It's a secret. But at the end of the day, the idea of banning further leasing was voted down."

Jarrett said one surprising recommendation from the commission was to include natural gas-fired power plants as a qualified resource under the Alternative Energy Portfolio Standards Act, the law that requires an increasing amount of Pennsylvania power to be generated from alternative or renewable sources.

Jarrett said the effort to promote new markets for natural gas would effectively destroy the incentives for other alternative power sources - such as municipal solid-waste incinerators, waste-coal plants, and large hydroelectric plants - as well as for energy-efficiency measures.

Contact staff writer Andrew Maykuth at 215-854-2947 or

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