Rush for Gas Rights Ignites Battles for Control of Land
Published: December 14, 2011
The battle is playing out in Pennsylvania as the Republican-controlled legislature considers bills that would in their current form sharply limit a community’s right to control where gas companies can operate on private property. Critics say the final bill could vastly weaken local zoning powers and give industry the upper hand in exchange for a tax, which cash-strapped municipalities badly need.
The legislation has struck a nerve in a state where land control has long been considered quintessentially local.
“I’m a conservative Republican, and this goes against all my principles,” said Brian Coppola, the chairman of the Board of Supervisors of Robinson Township. The pending legislation, he said, “is an enormous land grab on the part of the industry. Our property rights are being trampled.”
Mr. Coppola noted a hillside in town that began to crack and slide under the weight of a new shale gas processing plant, which he contends was built without a permit. The town’s zoning powers allowed him, through a court, to compel the company to follow town regulations and allow town inspectors access to the site. The site was eventually stabilized. Losing those powers would leave local officials out of the equation, he said, even though they are responsible for protecting the health and safety of their citizens.
“I’m an unpaid, part-time elected official, and it’s been a nightmare,” he said. “The state is not capable of monitoring even the most basic parts of this industry.”
Local governments argue that drilling is an industrial activity, just like a gas station or a cement factory, that should be subject to zoning. Dozens of towns, cities and counties across the country have enacted rules on noise, lighting and the distance from homes and, in some cases, outright bans. In New York alone, there have been at least 70 such actions.
Companies say the rush to regulate has produced an overly burdensome set of demands that is denting their potential when the economy desperately needs a boost.
“It’s like having to get a different driver’s license in every town,” said Matt Pitzarella, a spokesman for Range Resources, a Texas drilling company that is active here.
The flurry of local rules comes as the federal government inches forward on a national study of hydraulic fracturing, also known as fracking, the process used to extract previously inaccessible natural gas from shale deep underground.
The study is expected to shape the future of the industry, but progress has been slow. In the meantime, courts have become the next frontier.
In New York in September, a Denver exploration company sued Dryden, a town near Ithaca, over a drilling ban. In Colorado, Gunnison County, which contains a ski resort, is fighting a drilling company’s court challenge to its zoning. In Texas, a restrictive gas drilling ordinance adopted by an affluent suburb of Dallas called Flower Mound has drawn several lawsuits alleging it amounts to an unconstitutional seizure of mineral rights.Read More...
Add Quakes to Rumblings Over Gas Rush (December 13, 2011)