Natural gas drilling has troubled residents and lawmakers in Pennsylvania in recent years as large gas deposits have been discovered in most of the state. But despite a recent find of a new deposit beneath Montgomery and Bucks counties, it’s unlikely the controversial industry will touch the region anytime soon.
Natural gas drilling -- also called hydraulic fracturing or fracking -- recently became a more immediate concern for Montgomery and Bucks counties after a U.S. Geology Survey published in June revealed a large natural gas reserve lies beneath the densely populated region. The South Newark Basin, which stretches across central New Jersey into eastern Montgomery County, may contain up to 1.6 trillion cubic feet of gas, according to the report. That’s almost enough gas to power the country for just one month.
Local Legislative Reaction
The realization that fracking in the county was a possibility led to swift legislative action by the region’s representatives. On the last day of the session, June 30, state legislators slipped a ban on drilling in the South Newark Basin into a tax law, which passed. The ban on granting drilling permits will extend to 2018 to give the state time to evaluate the potential of the reserves and the impact on the environment.
The ban was also an attempt to protect the region from the new natural gas development law, Act 13, which negated municipal zoning regulations and gave state agencies sole authority in determining where drilling for natural gas can occur.
“This legislation makes good on my promise that Act 13 was not intended to apply to Bucks County,” state Sen. Chuck McIlhinney (R-Bucks), who introduced the bill, said in a statement on his website. “My colleagues in Harrisburg never intended for [Act 13] to affect our region, and now that a newly discovered formation exists, they agree that a moratorium on drilling is appropriate to give us the same time to study and debate the issue for our local area.”
Many municipalities in southwestern Pennsylvania were frustrated with Act 13, which passed in February, and seven filed suit against the state including Nockamixon Township and Yardley Borough in Bucks County. Sixty-seven other municipalities passed resolutions condemning the act and supporting the lawsuit.
“Zoning is one of the most important principles for land use, and Act 13 took that away,” said Nancy Alessi, town supervisor in Nockamixon. “The state said gas and oil drilling must be permissible in every district, which is just contrary to everything we stood for. We have a duty to protect the health and well-being of our residents, and zoning plays an important factor in that.”
History in Bucks County
Nockamixon is the only municipality in Bucks County that has a history of drilling -- in the 1980s, the town had an active oil drill. After Act 13 passed, the town received an application for drilling from another oil and gas company, Alessi said. The process was haulted when the ban passed in June.
However, proponents of Act 13 are in favor of the law because it provides uniformity in zoning regulations about where they can drill.
“Lack of uniformity has long been an Achilles' heel for Pennsylvania and must be resolved if the commonwealth is to remain a leader in responsible American natural gas development and reap the associated economic, environmental and national security benefits,” Marcellus Shale Coalition President Kathryn Klaber said in a prepared statement.
The Commonwealth Court, a state appellate court, reached a decision last week after months of legal battles. In a 4-3 decision, the court overturned key parts of Act 13 that stripped municipalities of zoning rights and would allow the fracking industry to drill where they pleased. The decision restores the oversight municipalities had in regulating where drilling is allowed.
“This is a great victory for the people of Pennsylvania, for local democracy, for property rights, for our public health, and for the clean water supplies on which we all depend,” Jordan Yeager, attorney for plaintiffs Delaware Riverkeeper Network, Nockamixon Township and Yardley Borough, said in a news release.
The decision was a huge victory for Nockamixon, Alessi said.
“By taking away zoning, every land owner was potentially negatively affected,” she said. “The court ruled that taking away those rights is unconstitutional. The stakes were tremendously high, and we are gratified that the court ruled in our favor.”
State Plans an Appeal
The day after the court gave its decision, Gov. Tom Corbett announced the state will appeal the case to the state supreme court.
While the court made a good decision for the region’s residents, state Rep. Steve Santarsiero (D-Bucks) said the battle is not over.
“We still have to legislatively correct other mistakes, such as making buffers between drilling and water sources wider than Act 13 requires, creating a drilling tax to fund environmental oversight, and making sure all pertinent information about the chemicals used is disclosed, among other things,” Santarsiero said. “The issues here are not as immediate because of the ban on drilling in the South Newark Basin. We would hope to fix all the issues with Act 13 before that expires.”
If things go sideways for the municipalities and drilling is once again allowed, the chances drilling will begin in the South Newark Basin are still very slim. With natural gas prices at an all-time low and the deposit holding only enough gas to power the country for just about a month, companies aren’t likely to take the risk of drilling in a new deposit when they are drilling in the western half of the state, which holds nearly 20 times as much natural gas.