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Corbett urges legislative leaders to limit what towns can require of gas drillers

| Wednesday, Feb. 1, 2012

With a multi-billion-dollar project in the balance for Pennsylvania, Gov. Tom Corbett wrote legislative leaders this week to insist they pass limits on local control of the oil and gas industry.

It's "paramount" that any oil and gas law reform bills bring uniform standards for when and where drilling can happen in the state, Corbett wrote Tuesday to six top lawmakers from both parties. The 145 approved or pending local oil and gas ordinances, many of which ban drilling, or create noise and space restraints so stiff that they essentially ban drilling, could discourage businesses, he wrote.

"As you know well, Pennsylvania is currently engaged in efforts to attract significant outside capital investment to develop (Marcellus shale gas) — investment which means thousands of well-paying jobs and plentiful and affordable feedstock for our plastics and chemical manufacturers," Corbett wrote in the letters his staff released today. "We cannot afford to lose these opportunities."

The state has a long-standing tradition of local land-use rights, and the drilling industry shouldn't receive special exemptions from that, said Jonathan Kamin, the solicitor for South Fayette in a court case challenging its drilling rules. State lawmakers are starting to realize that and turn against Corbett's proposal under pressure from municipal officials, said Brian Coppola, supervisor in Robinson, Washington County.

Though the state's current oil and gas law puts the state in charge of most aspects of drilling, state courts have affirmed that municipalities do have some control over where and when drill work can happen. Under the new proposal, given preliminary approval this fall by the state House and Senate, it would be allowed everywhere statewide, including residential zones, except within 300 feet of a house.

Coppola and his allies have met with several state lawmakers to push an alternate proposal, he said. They support the governor's call for consistency, but oppose what they see as a push to strip nearly all local power over drilling.

Under their plan, local governments would have to decide on conditional drilling permits within 100 days, but would still have control over noise, odor and the location of drill sites, pipelines and processing plants. Among several other provisions, there would have to be 5,000 feet between drill pads, and counties would have to set comprehensive plans to identify reasonable drilling areas and pipeline routes.

Corbett is pushing to limit local laws as part of an effort to improve conditions for businesses and compete for their investment, according to experts who are following the legislation. In his letters this week, the governor wrote that neighboring states provide more consistent rules for the drilling business.

He then alluded to the state's ongoing competition with West Virginia and Ohio for what is expected to be a $1 billion to $4 billion project to build a new ethane processing plant. Royal Dutch Shell plc, the first of several companies to announce interest in building, is expected to pick one of the three states this month.

The public push from the Corbett administration comes one week after nine Senate Republicans sent a letter to their leaders objecting to the provisions limiting local power. If voting as a group, they may be able to block any final, merged bill the Senate and House try to pass.

Corbett's staff is "optimistic" legislators will pass a new package of rules on deep drilling before the governor makes his annual budget address on Tuesday, spokesman Eric Shirk said in response to emailed questions. Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Michael Krancer spoke Downtown today to about 160 businessmen at a Pittsburgh Technology Council luncheon, in part urging them to push their representatives to vote for the bill.

"It almost makes me feel they're getting panicked," Coppola said of the governor's letters. "The more we educate the legislators, the less likely they are to vote for it. What the state's trying to do, what the governor's trying to do ... all they're doing is removing the local rules that we have in place now, but they'e not filling in those gaps at all."

The local government system is much more complex in Pennsylvania than in some other states the drilling industry works in, Range Resources Corp. spokesman Matt Pitzarella said in an email. The Texas company has worked with state officials and local government groups to strike a balance between local and state power to ensure the industry's long-term development, he added.

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