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Mars board rejects $1M drilling offer

| Saturday, March 15, 2014, 2:42 p.m.
Bill Vidonic | Tribune-Review
Colleen Tully of Adams on March 11 held a poster of her daughter Ally, a first-grader last year in the Mars Area School District, to protest Rex Energy's proposal to drill under Mars Area School District property. She was joined by older daughter, Jacquelyn Tully, a senior at Penn State.
People prepare to attend a meeting Tuesday, March 11, 2014 of the Mars Area School Board, which rejected a proposal by Rex Energy to drill under school district property. The agreement would have paid pay the district just over $1 million for a five-year lease. People opposed the drilling, saying they were worried about the safety of their children. Photo by Bill Vidonic.

Local opponents of Marcellus shale drilling said they plan to look to federal or state legislators to beef up laws so that drilling will be banned within a mile of school property.

The Mars Area School Board rejected a proposal last week to allow drilling beneath its district property. But the driller, Rex Energy based in State College, said it still plans to develop a well pad on Denny Road in Middlesex, about 4,000 feet away from school property.

Rex would use the pad to drill for natural gas in other areas.

“How do we approach this?” said Diane Sipe, head of the Marcellus Outreach Butler grassroots organization.

“At least with children, stay away from the schools until we determine what's going on. Stop that.”

Sipe said residents could decide to appeal a permit for the well.

Mars Area School directors voted 9-0 on Wednesday to reject Rex Energy's offer of $1 million to conduct underground horizontal drilling from the Middlesex well pad.

Sipe said local residents are speaking out against the well itself, including its proximity to school property.

Opponents also pointed to the recent well explosion in Greene County that killed one worker as an example of the risks.

“I think there's some changing of consciousness right now,” Sipe said.

“Hopefully the same prudence shown by the Mars Area School District will be shown by other school districts.”

The Butler Area and Seneca Valley school districts have signed drilling agreements with Rex and South Butler has inked a deal with XTO Energy.

After a number of constituents called him prior to the Mars vote, state Rep. Daryl Metcalfe, R-Cranberry, said he'd support a statewide standard for regulations dealing with Marcellus shale drilling that would protect the public while “using our natural resources for energy independence and job creation.”

He did not say whether he'd support banning drilling within a mile of schools.

The state did pass new rules for how close drill sites can be to buildings as part of its overhaul of oil and gas laws in 2012.

Unconventional gas wells have to be at least 500 feet away from a building or water well, the law says.

It does grant exceptions. Owners may give written consent for drillers to work closer, and the well operator may obtain a variance to work closer if the setback would block a subsurface owner from accessing the oil and gas.

Conversely, municipal governments also have some power to make more restrictive setbacks.

With the state Supreme Court this year throwing out portions of Act 13 that restricted local zoning of oil and gas developments, questions have been raised as to how much authority local municipalities will have over zoning. Commonwealth Court is still considering whether the rest of Act 13 can stand.

Middlesex Manager Scott Fodi said the oil and gas legislation dictates setbacks.

Property owners in nearly 75 percent of the township, which encompasses 23 square miles, have some type of lease agreement with energy companies, Fodi said.

“It's a challenge when you have leases that are all over the community. They're probably in every zoning district we have in the community,” Fodi said.

“Many people have already been paid royalties, or may be at the point where they're waiting for the next unit to come in.”

Bill Vidonic is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5621 or bvidonic@tribweb.com. Staff writer Tim Puko contributed to this report.

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