The long and winding road to passing a drilling impact fee in Pennsylvania hit another pothole Wednesday when nine Republican state senators whose districts are outside the Marcellus shale signed a letter opposing restrictions on local zoning contained in the bill.

Writing to Senate President Pro Tempore Joseph Scarnati and Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, both also Republicans, the group expressed support for a provision in the legislation borrowed from state agricultural law that allows the state attorney general to review local restrictions on oil and gas development.

“However, we feel the language contained in the current version of the bills goes far beyond that concept and actually works more like a model ordinance by specifically spelling out permitted uses,” they wrote.

The letter showcases the reduced role of party affiliation in the debate. All nine senators are from southeastern Pennsylvania, a region between Harrisburg and Philadelphia that does not overlie the Marcellus Shale.

The letter was signed by Sens. Richard Alloway, Ed Erickson, Mike Folmer, Stewart Greenleaf, Charles McIlhinney, Bob Mensch, John Rafferty, Robert Tomlinson and Pat Vance. Only six of those lawmakers voted for the version of House Bill 1950 that the state Senate passed last November (see Shale Daily, Nov. 17, 2011).

Perhaps more importantly, six of the nine also voted against an amendment on the Senate floor that would have stripped the bill of all local zoning restrictions. That amendment failed by a vote of 27-22.

As currently written, HB 1950 would require local governments to allow natural gas drilling in all zones but would not entirely pre-empt local control, as the state House of Representatives originally proposed. Until now, those provisions were one of the few areas where the House and Senate versions of the bill aligned.

HB 1950 is currently stalled as House and Senate leaders attempt to reconcile their differences. Those primarily concern the structure of the fee and the distribution of the revenue collected from it. Philosophically, the House wants a smaller fee, administered by counties and largely funding local programs, whereas the Senate wants a larger fee administered by the state and funding local and state programs somewhat equally.

Lawmakers hope to pass a bill before Gov. Tom Corbett releases his budget in early February.

Opponents of the bill, including environmental groups, have increasingly picked up the local zoning restrictions as a point of contention and recently protested it at the state capitol (see Shale Daily, Jan. 19).

The industry generally supports an impact fee but has lamented the “patchwork” of local drilling ordinances in Pennsylvania as a competitive disadvantage (see Shale Daily, Jan. 23; Oct. 7, 2011).