This week, two major events dealing with Marcellus Shale and our local communities took place; you decide if they’re related or not.
Today, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court hears oral arguments in the Act 13 challenge, the lawsuit filed after all local zoning control over oil and gas operations was usurped by the Legislature.
The Supreme Court decision may be one of the single most important ones in the history of Pennsylvania, particularly in heavily drilled areas such as Washington County. The municipalities leading the charge are Cecil, Robinson and Mt. Pleasant Townships in Washington County and South Fayette Township in Allegheny County. I’m proud to say I represent all four of them as a state legislator.
On Monday, the Public Utility Commission announced the release of the Marcellus Shale impact fee money to counties and municipalities across Pennsylvania. But buried in the details of Gov. Tom Corbett’s press conference was a small detail: four municipalities will not be receiving their impact fee money, which should have been a combined $974,567.32.
Which municipalities are left out? You guessed it—Cecil, Robinson, Mt. Pleasant and South Fayette Townships. Quite the coincidence, huh?
Here’s what happened.
Under Act 13, any resident can challenge their municipality’s drilling ordinance to the PUC and demand a review to ensure the ordinance complies with Act 13. One resident in each municipality filed a complaint with the PUC to challenge their respective ordinances, even though the municipalities in question have never denied a single drilling permit application and have never banned or blocked drilling activity. Robinson Township’s ordinance is exactly one sentence long—it makes drilling a conditional use in all zoning districts.
According to published reports, each of the residents who challenged the ordinances is a leaseholder with Range Resources, and Range filed its own challenge in South Fayette Township. This is the same company whose lobbyists basically wrote Act 13, including the zoning provisions struck down by the Commonwealth Court.
So Range Resources is claiming the ordinances in those municipalities makes it impossible for them to do business, which could be considered a fair point if it wasn’t such a blatant lie.
This week, Range will be moving forward with a conditional use permit to drill a new well in Robinson Township. Just last week, Range Local Government Affairs Manager Jim Cannon sent a letter to the Cecil Township Supervisors expressing a desire to drill more wells in the community, citing the successful completion of 10 horizontal wells and “the cooperation of the supervisors.”
So which is it, Range? You can’t cry publicly about not being able to drill while you are actively drilling here. Pick a lane and stay in it, please.
To be clear, all of this drilling is taking place under the local ordinances that would have been wiped out by Act 13, so can we please knock off the false rhetoric about these communities being anti-drilling? It’s simply not true. This isn’t a black and white, pro-drilling vs. anti-drilling argument—it’s about ensuring accountability, public safety and true best practices for an industry where some of the companies have been openly hostile toward any questions, no matter how legitimate.
So Range Resources, both directly and through a few handpicked leaseholders, had the ordinances of these four municipalities challenged for no reason other than political extortion. It wants to hold up the money from coming into these communities and mislead people into believing the Act 13 challenge is directly linked to the loss of impact fee money, when in fact the only link is Range’s own actions.
It is willing to hold nearly $1 million intended for roads, police and fire departments and parks in order to exert enough public confusion and political pressure to do whatever they want, with no accountability.
Hijacking public money in this way is a short-sighted, selfish, mean-spirited and totally unnecessary approach which exposes all of Range Resources’ “good neighbor” rhetoric as pure garbage.
Are any of the executives down in Fort Worth paying attention to how poorly this is being handled? Some fresh faces in the public relations department would be the single best move Range Resources could make right now, because the current crew is doing much more harm than good.
I watched the news conference in shock as both Gov. Tom Corbett and Sen. Tim Solobay stood in support of the PUC’s action to withhold the impact fee money from these communities. I was shocked because the PUC’s actions are not only immoral, but are also clearly illegal.
Section 3308 of Act 13 clearly states impact fee money can only be withheld AFTER it has been established that an ordinance does not comply with Act 13; such a determination requires an order from the PUC or the courts. In the instance of these four municipalities, no determination has been made as to whether the ordinance complies or not, so under the law the impact fee money cannot be withheld.
Otherwise, any resident or drilling company could file a bogus complaint at any time and stop the flow of money into the municipality, essentially taking the interests of everyone living in that community hostage.
But this is why the lobbyists who wrote Act 13 gave the power to the PUC— they’re not elected, they’re all appointed by the governor and are being given extraordinary power to act as a substitute for the legislative and judicial branches of government. The stunning lack of respect for separation of powers and the constitution only underscores the lengths being taken to rig the game against people who want to see the natural gas industry succeed, but not at the expense of our health, safety and welfare.
I am calling on Governor Corbett and Senator Solobay to join me in urging the PUC to respect and obey the law by releasing the impact fee money to the people of Cecil, Mt. Pleasant, Robinson and South Fayette Townships.
These petty tactics designed to divide and conquer our communities aren’t going to work—if anything, they will expose who is serious about developing our natural resources in a truly honest, safe and responsible way and who is willing to sell out the people of Pennsylvania by cowering to special interests based on the size of the next fundraising check.