Last week, two bills advanced through their respective chambers in the Legislature. Don’t let anyone tell you these bills, Senate Bill 1100 and House Bill 1950, were “the best we could do” on the issue of Marcellus Shale.
When you consider all the time spent on the studies, hearings and commissions—coupled with the immense importance of natural gas development on the future of our region—these proposals are woefully inadequate in more ways than I can count.
I’ll focus on House Bill 1950, the bill our chamber passed. This bill is simply a horrific plan for anyone in southwestern Pennsylvania who cares about the effects of the natural gas industry on their local communities, which is why I voted ‘no’ on the bill.
This bill would effectively eliminate the right of local municipalities to pass reasonable ordinances dealing with natural gas operations, which also includes pipelines and compressor stations. It would eliminate any possibility of open and transparent decisions based on the individual needs of the community and its residents.
Although proponents claim the bill would make our communities safer, those claims do not stand up to reality. Making drilling a permitted use anywhere, allowing compressor stations to be built within 750 feet of homes, and no protection for school zones cannot be considered adequate by anybody with common sense.
We all recognize the economic growth that is being created by the natural gas boom, and local governments don’t want to overly restrict the industry. But nothing in House Bill 1950 would create new jobs for Pennsylvania residents or provide an economic benefit for anyone who wasn't benefitting already. Despite the claims of a 'balanced approach,' House Bill 1950 is as unbalanced as it gets.
The impact fee, considered to be a tax by many, is only 1 percent, which is lower than the 2.5 percent the gas industry itself recommended, and far below every other state in the nation. Furthermore, the fee will have to be enacted by the individual counties, which creates a totally unnecessary level of government bureaucracy.
This approach was widely believed to be taken in order to avoid the wrath of the no-tax pledge signed by many Republican lawmakers at the behest of lobbyist Grover Norquist and his Americans for Tax Reform group. For the record, Norquist still considers HB 1950 to be a tax—he sent a letter to all of us via email while we were debating the bill in the House chamber.
We also missed the opportunity to make some simple common-sense revisions to the law. For example, an amendment that would have increased road bonding requirements for drillers from $6,000 to a more realistic $250,000 per mile was defeated. The excuse was that the requirement would have been a “nail in the coffin” of the gas industry, which doesn’t pass the laugh test.
The bond would only have to be paid if a driller did not repair the roads on their own, so now any damage of more than $6,000 will have to be paid by the taxpayers. To put things into perspective, you couldn’t repave your driveway for $6,000, much less a mile of road. To actually rebuild a mile of road costs more than $1.25 million, which again will be passed directly on to local taxpayers.
Local officials were only asking for a common-sense level of accountability from an industry that is literally drilling in their own backyards. Unfortunately, common sense is considerably lacking in House Bill 1950, and anyone who tells you otherwise is either knowingly spewing propaganda or dangerously ignorant of reality.
Under this bill, the state effectively would be saying all of local rules related to gas drilling should be tossed out the window and replaced with incredibly weak standards put forth in the name of “uniformity and consistency." Such an approach is beyond ridiculous.
Although I had two amendments to House Bill 1950 that would have strengthened local control, the Republican majority used a parliamentary tactic of 'moving theprevious question' to cut off debate and block my—and other similar— amendments from being debated or voted on. That is not open and transparent government. That is not governing responsibly. And unfortunately, neither is House Bill 1950.
This bill is now headed to the state Senate where I would urge my colleagues to do the right thing and ensure that our local communities can retain some reasonable controls that will allow the economic benefits of natural gas drilling while preserving the health and safety of the people in towns across Pennsylvania.
Everyone says they want to promote natural gas development in “the right way”. The definition of “the right way” is broad and subject to debate and discussion, but cannot possibly include the short-sighted, unbalanced and anti-taxpayer provisions in House Bill 1950.