Public Utility Commission rejects Pittsburgh’s drilling ban
By Bob Bauder
Published: Wednesday, September 12, 2012, 12:01 a.m.
Updated: Monday, September 17, 2012
Pittsburgh City Council overstepped its authority in 2010 when it banned Marcellus shale drilling in the city, according to an opinion issued this week by the Public Utility Commission.
The commission reviewed Pittsburgh's ordinance at the request of city Solicitor Daniel Regan and found that sections containing environmental and oil and gas regulations were pre-empted by state and federal law.
The opinion carries no legal authority, said commission spokeswoman Jennifer Kocher. She said council can use it as a guide to amend the ordinance if it chooses.
But that's not likely, according to council President Darlene Harris.
“As far as I'm concerned, this opinion doesn't have any effect on the city of Pittsburgh's ban,” she said. “I'm not going to jeopardize the health, safety and welfare of the residents of Pittsburgh — which I'm sworn to uphold — for money.”
Mayor Luke Ravenstahl opposes the ban and supports the PUC opinion, said spokeswoman Joanna Doven. She said the mayor wants to work with council and change the ordinance to permit drilling with “common-sense safeguards.”
“The mayor wouldn't want drilling in the city to occur without safeguards and ordinances in place that protect dense neighborhoods and things like that,” Doven said.
Former Councilman Doug Shields, who co-sponsored the ban, said the PUC should stand aside and allow courts to decide the issue.
Regan said he asked the commission to look at the city's ordinance in February after reviewing the state's Act 13 rules setting standards for how municipalities can regulate oil and gas extraction. Commonwealth Court in July ruled those provisions of Act 13 as unconstitutional. State agencies have since appealed to the state Supreme Court.
Kocher said the PUC is reviewing local ordinances that regulate Marcellus shale drilling in South Fayette and Robinson, Washington County, two municipalities that filed lawsuits leading to the court ruling. If the commission finds the ordinances conflict with state law, the PUC can penalize the townships by withholding impact fees paid by drillers, she said.
Their situation differs from Pittsburgh's in that the townships' residents requested a review, not an opinion. Pittsburgh could face a similar penalty if a resident or industry representative asks for a review and the PUC rules against the city, Kocher said.
Downtown Attorney Jonathan Kamin, who represents South Fayette, questioned the PUC's action.
“It is completely senseless that you have a governmental organization that is serving as an adversary in an action against South Fayette Township,” he said.
Bob Bauder is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-765-2312 or email@example.com.
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