At nearly midnight a little more than a week ago in Harrisburg PA, Legislators banned drilling for natural gas under Bucks and Montgomery counties in what some believe was a sneaky decision.
The Legislature had made promises to clean up its way of doing business by eliminating last-minute deals, debates deep into the night, and measures being passed without thorough deliberation, but this decision went against all the promises made.
The decision was made at the last minute, with no public hearings, and minor debate as lawmakers rushed to send Gov. Tom Corbett the annual budget on time.
Not only was the moratorium passed quickly and swiftly, but questions still linger regarding how the measure came about, who benefits from it, and if it is even necessary.
One backer of the moratorium insists it is necessary. Sen. Charles McIlhinney, R-Bucks, says it was necessary following a new scientific study on the potential natural gas locked in the so-called South Newark Basin, which underlies parts of Montgomery, Bucks, Chester, and Berks counties. He said that before drilling, it is important to find out where the natural gas is and how much of it is there.
Critics of the moratorium are upset because while their towns and counties are covered with drilling rigs, they feel that Bucks County legislators created a special status for their area to pacify angry constituents who are against drilling. Other counties have to abide by Pennsylvania’s new law, Act 13, which imposes fees on drillers in the gas-rich Marcellus Shale but takes away local zoning controls over drilling.
Most legislators were first exposed to the moratorium language while they were in negotiations with Gov. Corbett and his aides over the budget and related bills needed to meet the budget deadline.
One of those bills, the fiscal code, gives detailed guidance on how state dollars are to be spent. Every year, legislators make myriad changes in it to reflect new needs; this year, the changes took up 56 pages.
It was in the fiscal code that the moratorium language was cited.
The language states that Pennsylvania can’t issue drilling permits for the South Newark Basin until 2018, or until the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources completes an impact study. The Legislature will also have to lay out provisions for a local-impact fee.
Moratorium defenders see their suburban counties being subjected to a surge of rigs in a few years, and they don’t like it.