Monday, July 12, 2010

Shale Gas and City Council Try to Mix

Pittsburgh City Council spent more than three hours Monday learning the ins and outs of Marcellus Shale gas drilling and what it could mean to Pittsburgh. The debate over shale drilling dangers, safeguards and opportunities is raging throughout the state and when drilling moves into an urban area a whole new set of questions get thrown into the mix. University of Pittsburgh Center for Healthy Environments and Communities, Director of Operations, Chuck Christen says it starts with the seismic testing done that shakes the ground to find the shale layer. “When that’s done, especially in an urban setting, will there be damages to foundations, or cisterns, or bridges or retaining walls? And if that is true, that there are accidents from that, who will be addressing that,” says Christen. He also worries about disturbing radon and methane above the shale layer.

State Rep David Levdansky has long been a watchdog of the oil and gas industry and has taken the lead on several pieces of Marcellus related legislation. He says he is watching some legislative proposals coming through Harrisburg that could greatly impact this issue. One bill that he likes, would give Pittsburgh the same rights that smaller municipalities have when it comes to restricting shale drilling to select areas by using zoning laws. Currently that is not possible under the second-class city code. A bill Levdansky does not support, would allow for what is called “forced pooling” or “fair poling.” In some states, a drilling company only needs to get 65% of the landowners over a shale well to sign on before they can proceed. The rest are automatically included in the lease. Levdansky says a drilling company needs the mineral rights for about 12-15,000 acres for each well.

On the surface, state law requires a drilling company to hold at least five acres of land to drill a well and the rig must not be within 200 feet of any occupied structure. Such a privately held parcel of land is not easy to find in Pittsburgh. Penn Future Lawyer John Baillie says about Marcellus Shale drilling in the city, “This does not belong here.” And Councilman Bill Peduto posed the question to all the experts gathered, “Where in the city should we allow a well?” There was no answer.

When asked if she new of any companies planning to drill in the city, Marcellus Shale Coalition Executive Director Kathy Klaber answered that none of her members have any plans in the workers. Council members say some land owners in the city have been getting inquires from drilling companies but Klaber says they are not members of her coalition.

Pittsburgh Public Safety Director Michael Huss says although responding to a gas well accident is similar to responding to any industrial accident, his staff is taking on additional training to prepare for any Marcellus Shale activity in the city.

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