Pennsylvania’s newly passed bill imposing fees on natural gas drillers charges the industry far too little, doesn’t do enough to protect the environment, and was drafted in secret by Republican lawmakers who sought to curtail public debate on the measure, Democrats in the state claim.
House Democrats, who lost the decisive vote on the measure last week, argued that Republicans kept the 174-page bill under wraps until less than 24 hours before it was debated on the House floor because they were concerned that parts of it would be so unpopular among the public that it would fail to pass the legislature.
That would have left Pennsylvania as the only US state not to impose any kind of levy – whether a tax or a fee – on natural gas drilling at a time when surveys have shown widespread public support for a charge on the industry which is sinking thousands of wells into the gas-rich Marcellus Shale.
Now that the bill has cleared the Republican-controlled legislature, it is expected to be signed this week by Republican Governor Tom Corbett, who has staunchly opposed any new taxes including a natural gas “severance”, or production, tax, first proposed by former Democratic Governor Ed Rendell in 2009.
Republicans rejected Democrats’ claims that the bill was decided behind closed doors, and argued that Democrats had ample opportunity to debate it in a conference committee that was convened to agree any outstanding issues the day before the bill was debated on the House floor.
“It’s hogwash,” said Steve Miskin, a spokesman for House Majority Leader Mike Terzai. “Democrats on the conference committee had very detailed questions about specific provisions. To say that they didn’t see it is an absolute falsehood.”
The Hours That Mattered
In light of the legislature’s previous attempts to pass a gas-drilling levy, the bill that finally achieved it was “the most intensively and publicly debated of the last 10 years,” Miskin said.
But Bill Patton, a spokesman for House Minority Leader Frank Dermody, argued that Democrats had been shut out of drafting the bill until it reached the conference committee less than 24 hours before it was debated in the House, which approved the bill on Feb. 8 in a largely party-line vote.
Democrats didn’t see a finished version of the bill until 7 pm on Feb. 6, the day before the start of the House debate, Patton said.
“The reason the conference committee was not officially created until the bill drafting was finished was to allow the Republicans to meet out of public view,” Patton wrote in an email.
During the House debate, Democrats accused Republicans of acceding to industry wishes by allowing counties to impose a drilling fee that is significantly lower than that in other gas-producing states; by reducing municipalities’ control over drilling in their own areas, and by permitting drillers to sink wells too close to homes and schools.
Democrat Jesse White, whose southwest Pennsylvania district is one of the most intensively drilled parts of the state, dismissed Republican claims that the bill preserves local control over gas drilling.
White said the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission, which is charged with administering the impact fee, has the power to render any local ordinances invalid if they don’t promote the development of the oil and gas industry in Pennsylvania.
“It’s a fallacy that local control is maintained,” White said.
The Marcellus Shale Coalition, an industry group which campaigned for a statewide standard on gas-drilling regulation, offered qualified support for the new bill.
“The legislation, while not perfect, provides the industry greater certainty to operate across Pennsylvania,” said MSC President Kathryn Klaber. “Without question, it will further increase costs, in terms of both time and resources, at a time of historically-low natural gas prices, which will affect decisions made into the future.”
Photo Caption: A Cabot Oil and Gas natural gas drill stands at a hydraulic fracturing site on January 17, 2012 in Springville, Pennsylvania. Hydraulic fracturing, also known as fracking, stimulates gas production by injecting wells with high volumes of chemical-laced water in order to free-up pockets of natural gas below. The process is controversial with critics saying it could poison water supplies, while the natural-gas industry says it’s been used safely for decades. While New York State has yet to decide whether to allow fracking, economically struggling Binghamton has passed a drilling ban which prohibits any exploration or extraction of natural gas in the city for the next two years. The Marcellus Shale Gas Feld extends through parts of New York State, Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia and could hold up to 500 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.