Members of the Pittsburgh Presbytery voted to end a one-year moratorium on shale development, a decision that could potentially open property from the organization’s 150 churches to Marcellus Shale oil and gas leasing.

The Rev. Sheldon Sorge, the presbytery’s general minister, told NGI’s Shale Daily that the church group’s members also endorsed a plan by its executive committee to negotiate with Shell Oil & Gas Co., a subsidiary of Royal Dutch Shell plc, for a 32-inch natural gas pipeline that would traverse its Crestfield Camp & Conference Center near Slippery Rock, PA.

“While the moratorium was in place, we were not permitting congregations to engage in conversations about leasing,” Sorge said Thursday. He said that after the May 9 vote, “they may now do that, but before they can actually have a lease and pursue any drilling, the leases would have to be approved on a case-by-case basis by the presbytery.”

Sorge said the presbytery, a regional council of Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) headquartered in Pittsburgh, is responsible for administering any leases, property sales and encumbrances at its member churches. The 226-acre Crestfield site is owned by the organization.

“The pipeline project was not covered by the moratorium, so that conversation has already been happening,” Sorge said. He confirmed that, if constructed, the Shell pipeline would be located in an undeveloped corner of the property, away from the facility’s buildings and activity areas.

“I think that in the church we have the same conversations that are happening in the broader society,” Sorge said. “People are passionate for development, and people are passionate for environmental restraint and protection. I would say that within the Presbyterian Church, we certainly all agree on responsible environmental stewardship.

“Any kind of agreement that can be made with a drilling company would certainly have to have rigorous safeguards and testing, which of course is required by law in many cases already.”

The Pittsburgh Presbytery’s boundaries overlay Allegheny County, except by special authorization of the church synod. The Crestfield site is in neighboring Butler County, in Slippery Rock Township.

According to the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), there were 22 active unconventional wells in Allegheny County during the second half of 2012, the most recent period where data was available. Of these, 19 wells were operated by Range Resources Appalachia LLC and three were operated by XTO Energy Inc., a subsidiary of ExxonMobil Corp. The DEP data also showed that 15 unconventional wells were located in Allegheny County’s Frazer Township, while the remaining seven were in Fawn Township.

Data from the DEP also shows that there were 175 unconventional wells in Butler County during 2H2012, including seven in Slippery Rock Township. All seven wells are owned by SWEPI LP, another Shell subsidiary.