Peters Township takes steps to prepare for eventual gas drilling
Officials in Peters Township know they cannot stop natural gas drilling, but they are taking steps to regulate what they can to protect the rights of citizens.
Council held a workshop June 25 to discuss the most recent decision by the state Supreme County regarding Act 13, which stipulates what state government can do to control activities involving extraction of natural gas from the Marcellus Shale layer.
Of the 30 audience members, only one was from the township. No public comment was taken.
There have been no requests for drilling sites in the township of about 22,000 residents, but neighboring communities such as Union and North Strabane township are experiencing or soon will experience drilling operations.
In an attempt to place restrictions on any potential drilling sites to protect its citizenry, Peters Township Council enacted two ordinances in the past, one of which was a modification after Act 13 was approved by the state legislature.
With the latest court decision, John Smith, township solicitor, told council, “You have a tough job ahead.”
No matter how much the township would like to regulate drilling operations – from large trucks on the road, to noise and dust pollution – local governments can not supersede state law.
“You all answer to the same god, and that is the Constitution,” Smith told council members.
One area the township can regulate is where trucks transporting to and from the sites many travel. In order to require local drilling companies to provide bonds to cover any damage that many occur, a weight limit must be established. Michael Silvestri, township manager, said weight limits are in place and the current township ordinance restricts trucks to collector or state-owned roads.
Smith, who is the solicitor for several municipalities, including Cecil Township, said in his experience drilling companies are willing to work with the local municipalities.
One step by the court was to declare that oil and gas drilling are industrial uses of land, and that those who own mineral rights cannot be discriminated against. However, citizens have various rights, such as free speech and the right to own a gun, and also to clean air and water.
If natural gas drilling in Peters Township was restricted to property zoned industrial, land would be limited. There are only a few, small areas currently zoned industrial and many are in close proximity to residential plans.
Variances cannot be granted citing an accessory use on requests for drilling as natural gas from the Marcellus layer is not considered an accessible utility. Smith said the gas extracted cannot be diverted directly to homes.
Smith pointed out that currently, the township does not have an ordinance regulating pipelines. When it comes to construction of pipelines, Smith said the township would need to investigate regulations to cover requests for pipelines above and below ground, and to understand the implication of lateral and vertical drilling.
Under state law, the township must permit drilling.
“We’re not looking for ways to stop it, just ways to plan for it,” Smith said.
Council has several decisions to make when crafting future ordinances and requested that Smith develop options the township could take to protect not only the rights of citizens, but also the rights of those who own the mineral rights.
“The board cannot just sit and wait,” Smith said.
While council must act according to the latest court ruling, Smith said that the decision was the result of a vote of 4-2 by the Supreme Court, and that some of the judges will soon be leaving the bench. How any of the new judges will vote on future changes and challenges to Act 13 is an unknown.