After about four years of on-and-off legislative hashing, the Pennsylvania General Assembly has finally passed a bill that imposes a fee on shale gas extraction -- ending Pennsylvania's reign as the only major gas-producing state without such a fee or tax. Governor Corbett is expected to sign the 173-page compromise bill, which also entails other regulations on the industry, immediately.
I’ll say up front that I think the fee and new rules are grossly inadequate. But so was the process by which they were enacted.
While it could be argued that the bill was years in the making, it actually materialized awfully quickly. The final bill came after the House and Senate had passed competing measures. When this happens, caucus leaders are supposed to name a conference committee that will sort the differenences out and then logically, draft a compromise bill. The final draft bill, however, emerged last Friday evening -- before a conference committee had even met.
So who drafted this bill? Democratic conferees said that the draft resulted from private meetings that they had not been invited to. They voted against it, but the conference committee approved the report along party lines. The final bill passed both legislative chambers this week -- also along party lines (only seven democrats voted in favor of the bill) -- after a heated floor debate and not without some, shall we say, arm-twisting.
So, a compromise bill magically emerged from a compromised process. What else was compromised? Here’s where it gets even murkier. You be the judge.
One local government organization supported the bill, even though it restricts local governments’ ability to zone and regulate natural gas drilling.
Some respected environmental organizations supported the bill, saying that while it was “far from perfect,” it was better than the status quo. They had preferred to get something enacted now than wait for a stronger bill.
But in what I would call a myopic move, other groups supported the bill solely for its very modest funding provisions for environmental improvements. They ignored the flawed, larger picture. The weak, funding tea that they sipped in supporting the bill was brewed largely at the expense of state parks and forests. Most of the funds that the shale gas bill allocates for its favored environmental program do not come from impact fee proceeds. Instead they were diverted from a dedicated fund that already supports reinvestments in the public lands -- hardly a win for the environment. Worse still, just a day before the final shale gas bill vote in the Senate, Governor Corbett unveiled a budget proposal that drastically cut or zeroed out key conservation programs managed by the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. This took away more than twice as much money as the shale bill provides for the environment. Altogether, environmental funding in Pennsylvania suffered a net loss this week.
Other environmental groups did strongly oppose the bill, saying that it amounted to “a takeover of municipalities by the State and the gas industry by gutting established and effective local planning and zoning rights.”
And Citizens for Pennsylvania’s Future laid out a withering indictment of the bill and what it calls its “Seven Deadly Sins.” (Full disclosure: I am a special advisor to PennFuture.)
Meanwhile, out in the Pennsylvania beyond Harrisburg, drillers continue to violate state law. A new analysis reveals that while the number of violations is down slightly from 2010 and the violations per well drilled have declined significantly, a total of 3,355 violations of environmental laws were carried out by 64 different Marcellus shale gas drilling companies between January 1, 2008 and December 31, 2011. Of these violations, 71 percent likely posed a direct threat to the environment.
History will judge what was compromised in Harrisburg this week. The performances of the industry and of state government, along with their impacts on the environment and communities, will tell the tale. Every citizen has the responsibility to watch closely as this story unfolds and if need be, hold the authors accountable for their actions -- or inactions. As one chapter closes, another begins. How Pennsylvania’s next chapter is written is up to all of us.