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editorial

Putting a price on self government


June 2, 2011

Since we’ve been arguing for some time in favor of natural gas severance taxes for New York and Pennsylvania, you’d think we’d be delighted with a new bill introduced in the Pennsylvania Senate, SB 1100 ( tinyurl.com/5rpzv2q ), which would collect impact fees on production from unconventional gas wells.

Impact fees are not quite the same as a severance tax.In the latter case, the revenues go to the state, whereas impact fees go directly to conservation districts, towns and counties according to a formula spelled out in the legislation. If anything, you’d think that would be even better than a severance tax—and so it might be, as far as distribution goes. The purposes for which the funds could be used range from remediation of damage caused by drilling (e.g. preservation and reclamation of surface and subsurface waters and water supplies) to the totally unrelated (e.g. tax reductions—if you smell a bribe on this one, read on: you may be right.)

So what’s not to like?

The relief offered by the fee system comes as part of a devil’s bargain: towns will only be eligible to participate in the program if they adopt zoning ordinances that are no more stringent than a model ordinance specified by the legislation. SB 1100 sponsor Senator Joe Scarnati (R) omitted this caveat in his press release announcing the bill, and we don’t blame him, given the template ordinance’s principal provisions. It would authorize oil and gas development as a permitted use by right in all zoning districts except residential districts; allow oil and gas development in residential zoning districts by conditional use or special exception; allow compressor stations by right in all agricultural, industrial and commercial districts and as a conditional use in all other districts. Yup, that’s right, you could have your very own neighborhood compressor station. The model ordinance would also limit the towns’ abilities to impose restrictions on noise, lights, hours of operation, security fencing and the like.

Anyone care to make any bets on how many lobbyists spent how many hours helping to draft this bill?

The Editorial, and Ms. Prettyman's comment

Such clarity of thought, and expression of it, is inspiring. Thank you. It makes me want to just cut and paste and send off to Senator Baker.

Drilling vs Democracy

We saw this SB 1100 bill coming when the Marcellus Shale Coalition lobbied Harrisburg hard to squelch zoning restrictions on drilling, anticipating Gov Corbett’s July 22 final report of his industry-heavy Marcellus Shale Advisory Commission (http://tinyurl.com/5wmgura). Lo and behold out of the Senate popped SB 1100 delivered reliably by Mr Scarnati, hiding a "model zoning ordinance" in the last 3 pages of the bill, hoping nobody would notice, not even mentioning the requirement to accept the ordinance in exchange for Impact Fee revenues in his press release.

These people are a piece of work. Mr. Scarnati wants to avoid resistance to his bill by hiding the truth of an outrageous attempt at extortion and the gas industry wants to avoid resistance to its wells and compressor stations by hiding all sorts of truths about their lack of safety to human and animal health, the environment, air and water -- and the climate -- and now by suppressing attempts to zone out or restrict drilling in the few ways currently permissible by state law. The Soviet Union has nothing over American energy corporations. They move right in, not only into local communities like we’re all little Polands and Yugoslavias, but into our federal and state and governments, simply by buying elections.

How dare these little towns all over PA stand up on their hind legs and prohibit gas drilling and compressor stations in certain zones (or outright throughout the town) or insist on setbacks from schools or hospitals farther than the next town? These variations from one municipality to the next are "inconvenient" and make the industry work harder, their lobbyists argue (which diminishes their profits but they don't mention that). And they will be able to drill fewer places. Industry bosses must be wondering, gee, why can't all townships in PA be more like Damascus where all three supervisors hold gas leases and made a unanimous decision to allow drillers and compressor stations into virtually the entire township with extremely few exceptions? No resistance there. When asked how he could let this happen, one supervisor said, "Well, you know, there's just a lot of trees and stuff."

SB 1100's "model zoning ordinance" is not aimed at “consistency” or "convenience" but at profit enhancement at expense of our health, safety and freedom of self-government.

Pro-drillers will argue resistance will "cost jobs" but if we keep backing into this lame excuse for industrializing the landscape, we'll end up stepping on our democracy (we've already stepped on its heels) which was founded on self-government and home rule. There’s tyranny at the core of SB 1100 and that’s no exaggeration.

We should be going in the opposite direction, enhancing our democracy, not enhancing profits of industry. The extortive “model zoning ordinance” attached to SB 1100 is such an over-reach that it should serve as a slap in the face to wake us up. SB 1100 is an ideal pivot point for the people of PA to turn around and re-write the old Oil & Gas Act to create a New Energy Act to reverse priorities: sustainables first, carbon last. The New Energy Act will reinstate home rule and self-government in regulating land use (zoning) in energy development. An awakened citizenry in itself, with inspiration of enlightened leadership of people like Andrew Boyar and Carol Roig of Highland and Barryville NY (just to name two), will help to create jobs. The excitement of taking back our country, of coming out of this corporate sleep we’ve fallen into, will have an energizing effect.

Pie in the sky? Tell that to Tom Paine, Ben Franklin, Tom Jefferson and George Washington when they fought for and won home rule in the Colonies (PA townships are NOT colonies of the gas industry) and this nation -- this democracy -- was born.

This is one of those moments to flood Sen Lisa Baker's office with letters against this bill and to march on the Capitol in Harrisburg June 7 at noon.

Jane Prettyman
Honesdale PA

Constantly recurring themes

Be afraid, be very afraid. Indiscriminate drilling on the landscape. Viewscape? Who's viewscape? unfixable damaged aquifers, diminished property value lie, devastating impacts, cancer galore, destroyed neighborhood characters, all important biodiverstity, and even God forbid, unhappy tourists! Actually unhappy tourist is most likely the given name of the author of this piece. Lions, and tigers, and bears, oh my!

If you want to control land use, my friend, it is going to take money.