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Marcellus shale impact widens in region

| Friday, Dec. 10, 2010

As representatives of oil and gas companies hoping to drill on private and public property approach landowners across Pennsylvania, municipal officials are faced with a decision - to zone or not to zone.

Oil and gas regulations are getting a closer look, as Marcellus shale drilling comes to town.

"We can't stop this activity, and we have to learn to live with it," said Joan Kearns, Murrysville council president. The state Supreme Court ruled last year that municipalities have the final word on issues regarding gas drilling such as noise, truck traffic and aesthetics. Since then, local officials have labored over ordinances that regulate where and when companies can drill.

As a result, some communities - including at least three in southwest Pennsylvania -- plan to require Marcellus shale drillers to obtain conditional-use approval. That means every well and permit must be approved individually. Industry officials say they support ordinances, but not all are in favor of conditional-use approval. Matt Pitzarella, spokesman for Texas-based Range Resources, the largest oil and gas drilling company in the region, said the process is time-consuming.

"It's like making you take a driver's test every time you want to get behind the wheel of a car," Pitzarella said. "They're compounding the work, rather than saying, 'Here's the standards; adhere to them.'"

Statewide, there are 1,177 drilling sites, including 35 in Westmoreland County.

With more than 2,500 municipalities statewide, there could be 2,500 different sets of regulations, said George Asimos, a partner with Saul Ewing, a law firm specializing in zoning and planning, based in Harrisburg.

However, leaders of towns in southwestern Pennsylvania are looking to one another for guidance.

In Murrysville, chief administrator Jim Morrison said the municipality's task force on regulation of oil and gas drilling ordinance reviewed regulations from Texas, Colorado and New Mexico, as well as local ordinances.

"We want to protect the character of the community and promote orderly development," he said.

An important piece of each community's regulations is where drilling will be allowed. Officials in some communities, such as Murrysville, chose to create a specific zoning district for drilling, incorporating both residential and commercial land. Others, such as North Huntingdon officials, are considering allowing drilling only in certain zoning areas.

Those options can cause problems for drilling possibilities along municipal borders, lawyer Asimos said. If drilling is allowed along one side of the municipal border, but not the other, it becomes less likely a drilling company would want to build on the property, which would hurt the land-owner's chances of profiting off of their minerals, Asimos said.

"It means a very unpredictable operating environment for the industry," Asimos said. "It could mean you can explore and extract gas effectively in one township but not in another. And for landowners, it could be a very unpopular thing."

Need for information

Penn Township officials began drilling-ordinance discussions last month. Art Kinser, who lives on land that could be drilled by Canonsburg-based Chesapeake Energy, has been leading a grassroots effort to get residents involved.

Kinser, of Level Green, lives in a housing development where residents do not own the gas rights. He said he has worries about having Marcellus shale wells near his home.

"Citizens have a false sense of security because they see relatively benign, shallow gas wells in the area and assume that Marcellus drilling is equally benign," he said.

He wants officials - both local and industry - to explain what residents should expect when drilling begins - a sentiment echoed by residents across the region.

So far, no two ordinances have the same zoning regulations regarding where wells can be drilled, Asimos said. Drilling on public property, such as municipal parks and school property, has been hotly contested in communities.

Mike Turley, assistant township manager in North Huntingdon, said officials haven't ruled out drilling on parks and school property. He said the township could profit if commissioners approve allowing wells on some borough-owned properties.

"There's this dichotomy where it might look awkward that we're looking to regulate on one hand and develop on the other," Turley said. "We have to craft out a scenario that's acceptable for us to have production on our lands and still have reasonable mechanism for approval of oil and gas production."

If Murrysville officials approve the proposed oil and gas drilling ordinance, drilling would be permitted in two municipal parks. The municipality owns the land and mineral rights in only one of those parks, Murrysville Community Park, Morrison said. School properties are not included in Murrysville's zoning district.

While gas companies aren't quite ready to drill in local communities yet, officials want to make sure they have all of their bases covered when the companies are ready.

"It's coming at you whether you want it to or not," Turley said.

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