Feature- Pennsylvania Towns Often Powerless Against Natural Gas Companies
By Rona Kobell, Chesapeake Bay Journal
There's a reason they call these the Endless Mountains.
Undulating hills of yellow and crimson rise gracefully before disappearing into a blanket of gauze-like fog. For miles, no other cars share the two-lane roads that snake through this tranquil pocket of northeast Pennsylvania.
People visit here for the hiking and the bicycling and the skiing and the leaf peeping; they stay for the quiet.
But natural gas drilling is quickly transforming these rural hamlets into industrial zones. Towns and counties that are sitting atop the gas-rich Marcellus Shale know that the gas companies are coming, and they are trying to prepare. But because of industry practices and current regulations, they may be powerless to control their destinies.
Gas companies play their cards close to their vests. They do not announce they may drill 40 wells; they drill one first and see how it produces. Usually, they approach a private landowner, who does not need permission from his or her municipality to lease. That's how Dimock, a rural hamlet in northeast Pennsylvania, went from one well in 2006 to more than 60 by the end of 2009. That's why visitors who meander down its barely one-lane roads will see the classic tableau of red barn, silver silo and lazing cows - but behind it is often a gas well lit up like a space shuttle.
"There's only so much that they can plan, because when these gas companies decide to come in, it happens rather quickly," said Jerry S. Walls, who was director of the Lycoming County Planning Commission for 37 years.
Many Pennsylvania towns have no zoning ordinances, complicating matters. But even those that do will not necessarily be able to enforce them on drillers. Under the Pennsylvania Gas Act of 1984, state regulations trump local ordinances.
The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection regulates gas drilling. It approves most permits and relies on the industry to self-report problems, while conducting spot checks for compliance.
"We've got no oversight at the federal level, none at the local level, and the state is in a shambles," said Jim Weaver, the lone planner in Tioga County, a prime location for drilling. "For all intents and purposes, the state legislature has handed the gas industry the Marcellus play to do with whatever they please."
Weaver called the situation "short-sighted and less than strategic" and said he hoped some planning would occur at the state level.
This year, two court cases in Western Penn-sylvania clarified the powers of local authorities over drilling. In Oakmont, the state Supreme Court ruled that gas companies could not drill a well where zoning laws forbade it. But in Salem, the court ruled the local laws had no say over where gas companies put infrastructure, such as pipelines, which come under the DEP's permitting process.
Bradford County Planning Director Ray Stolinas has been following the cases, trying to figure out how to apply them in his county. Recently, the county decided not to review plans to build a compressor station on the advice of their attorney.
"The message of these court cases is that you can regulate, to some extent, where, but you can't regulate how," Stolinas said. "I do feel unprepared. We're learning every day as we go along."
While Stolinas worries about stormwater and big trucks on the county's gravel roads, town officials are enjoying the boon. In Towanda, Bradford's county seat, restaurants are full and new businesses are opening.
"I think it's going to be a good thing for the town," said Towanda Mayor Richard Snell.
Sixty miles south, many gas companies have set up offices in Williamsport, breathing life into once-vacant downtown buildings. The renovated Holiday Inn offers world-class food with prices to match: a room, if one is even available, costs at least $145.
"It's like a convention that really hasn't left yet," said Jason Fink, vice president of economic development for the Williamsport/Lycoming County Chamber of Commerce.
Some residents say money is already changing the character of these towns. Linda Nealon, a Wyoming County preschool teacher, does not plan to lease her land. But, with landowners in her county commanding nearly $6,000 an acre and 20 percent royalties, she says, she's in the minority. And because she's aired concerns in public about drilling, she feels hostility from neighbors.
"I always felt very connected to my community. Now I feel very disconnected," she said. "It breaks my heart."
But residents and municipalities in the Marcellus Shale region don't have to throw up their hands, according to Walls, the professional planner. The gas companies will be in the state for a long time, and there is room to negotiate. He suggests local officials meet early with the companies and point out ecologically important areas and other places inappropriate for drilling. He also says local officials should update their land ordinances, talk to officials where drilling is already in full swing for advice, and get zoning if they don't already have it.
Lynn Senick, a Montrose activist who has organized an online forum to discuss drilling risks, is hoping the government can somehow slow down the process.
"It's such a travesty to take these pristine areas and ruin them," she said, "because once you start, you're never going to get them back."
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