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Pittsburgh Council Considers Drilling Ban in City

The Pittsburgh City Council was scheduled to vote Tuesday on an ordinance with questionable legal premises that would prohibit natural gas drilling in the city which is surrounded by the Marcellus Shale.

If approved, the ordinance would add "Marcellus Shale natural gas drilling" to a list of regulated rights and actions covered by Pittsburgh code. Approval by the council would establish "a bill of rights for Pittsburgh residents and remove legal powers from gas extraction corporations within the city" in an effort to "protect the health, safety and welfare of residents and neighborhoods," according to the ordinance which was drafted by Councilman Doug Shields and the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (see Daily GPI, Aug. 18).

In fact, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania reserves for itself the task of regulating oil and natural gas drilling, and the council's ordinance, if passed, could be vulnerable to legal challenge. There are limits on activities that can be banned by localities, which generally have the power to regulate commercial activity only through zoning.

And the ordinance doesn't particularly worry the industry. "The issue is priorities, and considering that there are hardly any leaseholds that have been executed, let alone sufficient movements by any one company to make Pittsburgh a higher priority than the many acres that are already leased around other parts of the Marcellus -- and the country, for that matter -- it is absolutely not a priority area for drilling," Kathryn Klaber, Marcellus Shale Coalition executive director, told NGI's Shale Daily. "Therefore, if the city wants to put forth some ordinance to ban it, it's not a particularly troublesome business proposition for us."

"It really comes down to the attitude that the city is portraying that is by no means reflective of the communities where we are partnering with landowners and where we are being a tremendous asset to the economy," Klaber said.

If Pittsburgh's prohibition on drilling is passed by the council and manages to survive legal challenges, it is likely to do more economic damage to the city than to drilling companies.  The city would lose the economic activity that would come with drilling, including drilling-related employment, tax revenues and leased office space, while drilling companies would still have other localities in which to operate, Klaber said.

The City Council last week gave its preliminary approval to the measure by a 7-0 vote, with two members absent. If approved by the City Council the ordinance would become effective upon the mayor's signature or 10 days after the vote.

Shields has said he expects the ordinance to be challenged in court by drillers, but believes the city council needs to protect Pittsburgh residents from what he considers a too powerful industry and a state government that has turned its back on problems associated with gas and oil drilling.

The state's Municipal Planning Act (MPA) doesn't adequately protect cities of Pittsburgh's size, according to Shields, who said the MPA applies only to cities smaller than Pittsburgh.

"Without that on the table I don't have any zoning authority here," Shields told NGI's Shale Daily. "This state does not have the proper regulatory environment at all to handle what we've got. The Marcellus Shale came into being about six years ago and it was all good...but as we learned what was going on with how this processing of hydrofracking [hydraulic fracturing] goes, [we realized] we don't really have much of anything going on to protect us environmentally...I've said it before; Harrisburg treats us like a colony."

Other localities in the state have moved to regulate gas drilling through their zoning ordinances. While officials of Allegheny Township are pleased with their proposed ordinance to regulate drilling through zoning, some residents believe it doesn't go far enough, the Valley News Dispatch newspaper reported. Critics would like the ordinance to prohibit gas drilling in areas zoned as single-family residential.

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