The day before the Pittsburgh City Council's recent vote to prohibit natural gas drilling there, commissioners in South Fayette Township, on Pittsburgh's southwestern edge, voted to ban drilling in conservation areas and all residential zones, including suburban communities and rural farmland.
Wells in the township must now be located at least 2,500 feet from schools and 1,000-1,500 feet from homes. As much as 80% of the 13,000-acre township may be barred to drillers by the zoning revision. Commissioners are also considering zoning overlays to further clarify where drilling will be allowed, as well as regulations for compressor stations and processing plants.
Like Pittsburgh, South Fayette hadn't yet become a focus for Marcellus operators; only one application, by Chesapeake Energy for land operations associated with drilling, had been filed for activity in the township. The board of commissioners had been working on the zoning ordinance amendment for about 18 months prior to the vote, Township Manager Michael Hoy told NGI.
"As we started to get more and more public input, we started to get feedback from our residents as to what their concerns and desires were," Hoy said. The Chesapeake application, filed with the state's Department of Environmental Protection, was for operations near one of the Township's schools, he said. "That obviously brought a lot more residents out and piqued their interest."
But whether South Fayette's decision is a sign of a statewide trend remains to be seen. Pennsylvania law prohibits localities from banning drilling outright, but they do have the ability to severely restrict natural gas operations through their zoning ordinances.
Several of Pittsburgh's southern suburbs -- the "South Hills" area -- are taking action to limit drilling operations. Peters Township is considering a zoning ordinance amendment that would define oil and gas drilling as a conditional use permitted only on single-family residential lots of at least 20 acres. The Bethel Park council approved a similar motion in September, and Upper St. Clair and McKeesport have also approved conditional use amendments to their zoning ordinances. At least a half dozen other South Hills communities are considering drilling-related zoning ordinance changes.
In Murrysville, about 20 miles east of Pittsburgh, legislators are considering a zoning ordinance amendment that would limit noise levels during drilling and hydraulic fracturing operations. The municipality's council is expected to vote Dec. 1 on a motion to schedule a public hearing on the amendment. In July the seven-member council approved a resolution calling on the Pennsylvania General Assembly to pass a 12-18 month moratorium on Marcellus Shale drilling and to create a commission to recommend regulations "governing the environmental, social and economic impacts of Marcellus Shale drilling."
But other localities have been working with companies to produce zoning systems that will allow some drilling while retaining some community control, Range spokesman Matt Pitzarella told NGI.
"We're currently working with about 30 municipalities in our operating area," Pitzarella said.
"Part of the challenge in Pennsylvania is that it's a commonwealth, and as a result there are 2,500 municipalities. There are a lot of local governments that overlap, and they can all have mildly different sets of rules. What we work with them on is developing model drilling ordinances, ones that give them the type of oversight that they would like and that give us predictability, which is really all we want. We don't want the rules to change every time."
For example, Range has worked closely with Cecil Township in Washington County, PA, Pitzarella said. The resulting eight-page zoning ordinance allows the township to regulate sound and light levels and hours of operation, while requiring Range to train first responders, provide traffic controls and more -- without attempting to shut down drilling operations.
"It's the most densely populated township in Washington County. Washington County is our core area, and that's where the most Marcellus Shale wells have been drilled in Pennsylvania," he said. "So our thought process on it was, if the most densely populated community can adopt these rules and it works for them, it should certainly work for less populated, more rural communities."
Cecil Township's ordinance is based on use by right, which lays out specific rules, Pitzarella said. Communities that have adopted ordinance amendments based on conditional use, which leaves the door open to a host of changeable conditions, have stumbled into an administrative quagmire, he said.
"They are finding that it is creating an unbelievable amount of administrative work on their end, because they have to basically go through the entire process -- the permitting process, structuring process, administrative process -- every single time you drill a well. I think some of those municipalities are realizing that they don't want to do that, because it becomes a full-time job for them."
Pittsburgh's recent approval of an ordinance prohibiting natural gas drilling -- despite questions about the ordinance's legality -- had an element of "political grandstanding," Pitzarella said.
"They're making more of a statement than anything else. There's no one who has interest in drilling in the city of Pittsburgh...They complain that the state has the control and local governments do not. That is not accurate, as evidenced by Cecil's ordinance," he said.
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