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'Why Can't We Say No?' City Councilman Pushes Back Against Marcellus Drilling
In Test for Municipal Self-Government, Pittsburgh Councilman Pushes for Gas Drilling Ban
Pittsburgh City Councilman Doug Shields today plans to unveil legislation to ban natural gas drilling in the city, saying he's wants to test a municipality's right to self-government, even if that means inviting a legal challenge from the drilling industry.
"Why can't we say no? Why is it that local authorities, the local government, can't make that determination?" Mr. Shields said Monday, the same day that the University of Pittsburgh reported a surge in the number of Allegheny County property owners who have leased land for oil and gas exploration.
Since 2003, about 35,400 acres -- about 7 percent of the county's land area -- have been leased, mostly for Marcellus Shale exploration, according to the University Center for Social and Urban Research. The number of new leases jumped from 30 in 2003 to 273 in 2008 to 1,153 last year, researchers said.
In Pittsburgh, only 362 acres, or about 1 percent of the city's land area, is under lease, Bob Gradeck, research project manager, said. Yet a flurry of leasing in East End neighborhoods has led to an outpouring of concern about river pollution and other potential problems in recent months.
City Councilman Patrick Dowd, who in June introduced legislation to impose operating and safety requirements on gas producers, said the city law department told him a drilling ban likely would not withstand a legal challenge. But Mr. Shields said it's worth attempting a ban and asserting the city's right to protect itself from what he described as a potentially harmful industry.
Mr. Shields has talked about a ban since June. His bill was written with the help of Ben Price, projects director for the Franklin County-based Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund, a nonprofit law firm that says it provides free or reduced-cost services to communities facing environmental threats.
Pennsylvania's Oil and Gas Act gives the state the authority to regulate those industries. But a ban is not a regulation, Mr. Price said, suggesting that distinction opens the door for Mr. Shields' legislation.
Governments long have struggled in legal fights to ban strip clubs and firearms, but those debates involved thorny First and Second Amendment issues, Mr. Price and Mr. Shields said. They noted that Pennsylvania municipalities, while lacking authority to regulate liquor sales within their borders, may elect to go dry and ban them altogether.
Mr. Price also said a municipality has the fundamental right and "police powers" to protect its residents' safety and welfare.
Kathryn Klaber, president and executive director of the Marcellus Shale Coalition, a Cecil-based trade group, said the city would have a difficult time barring landowners' development of their mineral rights.
"I really believe that city of Pittsburgh residents -- those who are paying taxes to support the city budget and certainly the landowners who own their mineral rights -- deserve a much broader discussion about what the industry would mean to their pocketbooks and to the future of Pittsburgh," she said.
Mr. Shields' bill has the support of state Sen. Jim Ferlo, D-Highland Park, who has introduced legislation that would impose a one-year statewide moratorium on new drilling so officials could ponder tighter regulations. He said Mr. Shields' bill would face a significant legal hurdle but believes that the city could make a compelling case.
The bill may face an uphill battle even among other city officials.
Mr. Dowd said attempts to impose a ban might interfere with more practical steps the city could take to protect residents, such as his bill's proposed requirement that production companies develop emergency management plans.
Mayor Luke Ravenstahl also opposes a ban, in part because drilling would create jobs, tax revenue for the state and spinoff revenue -- such as earned-income tax -- for the financially strapped city, his spokeswoman, Joanna Doven said. At the same time, she said, Mr. Ravenstahl understands concerns about potential hazards.
"What the mayor is focusing on is balancing the two," she said, noting the city is "going to prepare for any possible" pollution, well fires or other risks.
Mr. Gradeck said the university researchers spent months developing a database and interactive map of oil and gas leases, documenting what he called a "pretty dramatic increase" in leasing activity. The map is available at www.ucsur.pitt.edu/thepub.php.
The amount of land leased in the city is small compared with municipalities in other parts of Allegheny County, Mr. Gradeck said. In West Deer, for example, 4,348 acres -- about 23.6 percent of the township's land area -- has been leased since 2003, he said.
Ms. Klaber said the 7 percent leasing rate in Allegheny County is much smaller than in other Pennsylvania counties. Citing the especially modest lease holdings in the city, Ms. Klaber said drilling there is not imminent.
"We have time to establish a more healthy dialogue" with city leaders, she said.