Elected officials from a wealthy Pittsburgh suburb are urging their constituents to vote against a controversial referendum on the Nov. 8 ballot that would ban hydraulic fracturing (fracking) over fears that its passage would put the suburb in the crosshairs for lawsuits and undermine its drilling ordinance.

Peters Township, located on the northern edge of Washington County, PA, is reaching out to voters after a judge declined to remove the referendum from the ballot, citing a lack of jurisdiction on pre-election challenges without the perception of immediate harm (see Shale Daily, Oct. 6). The township had argued that the referendum was illegal because it violated the state Oil & Gas Act, the Home Rule and Optional Plans Law and the township's planning code (see Shale Daily, Sept. 15).

"The referendum is not only unconstitutional but it would subject the township to potential liability," Peters Township Councilman Frank Arcuri told NGI's Shale Daily on Tuesday. "And it could have the effect of nullifying the ordinance that we passed regulating drilling in the township."

Environmental group Peters Township Marcellus Shale Awareness (PTMSA) reportedly collected 2,422 signatures to have the referendum appear on the ballot. The question asks voters if the township's home rule charter should be amended to include a "Peters Township Bill of Rights," which would enact an outright ban on fracking in the township.

"I find it ironic that the people who have undertaken the effort to place this referendum on the ballot don't recognize that what they've done is really counterproductive, not only to the community but to the position that they're trying to advocate," Arcuri said. "If it passes, it would eviscerate the ordinance that we have in place and drilling could take place anywhere. It could also subject the township to a lot of liability and litigation unnecessarily."

Councilman James Berquist concurred, adding that celebrities such as Gasland producer Josh Fox have held meetings in the township to drum up support for the referendum.

"It's amazing when you've got a very small group of activists that can create such a maelstrom and cause such a controversy," Berquist told NGI's Shale Daily on Wednesday. "You've got seven council members all in agreement that have come up with a solid and legal ordinance, and who are all unanimously against this amendment because it's illegal. And yet a small group of people have been able to work it onto the ballot and work their magic. It's just unfortunate."

In an attempt to placate the PTMSA and other fracking opponents, the Peters Township Council adopted a 22-page mineral extraction ordinance on Aug. 8 that set guidelines over where drilling could occur and required oil and gas companies to obtain a conditional use permit.

Under the ordinance, applicants could not drill on parcels smaller than 40 acres and water and soil testing would need to be performed before and after drilling. Applicants would also submit transportation, road bonding and emergency plans with the township. According to the township, the restrictions in effect would allow drilling on 0.2% of land parcels in the municipality.

In a letter to voters, the township said the referendum's passage may raise property taxes and "puts the future of our community in financial jeopardy."

Arcuri said he believed the measure would be defeated at the polls. "I'm confident that our electorate is educated enough that they will see that the referendum is not in the best interests of the community," Arcuri said. "I'm confident that they'll do the right thing and vote it down."

But Berquist didn't share Arcuri's optimism.

"If people were allowed to vote over the internet, rather than go to the polls, the referendum wouldn't pass," Berquist said. "Those folks who are passionately against [drilling] will go to the polls and vote. The vast majority of people in this township are against this referendum, but it's an off year and there's not a lot of reason to go to the polls. I'm concerned that they won't show up to vote."