Last Friday, the 30-member Marcellus Shale Advisory Commission voted and adopted 96 recommendations that will now be submitted to the Governor by July 22 at which point they will also become public.
Based on news reports from the Commission meeting, the recommendations range from ways the state can help the natural gas industry find new customers to requiring that the industry help government pay the cost of its damage on roads and to the environment.
Four months of work has, for the most part, put us squarely back where we were four months ago. While the recommendations are being touted as a comprehensive, strategic proposal for the state to deal with the potential impacts of natural gas drilling, the reality is that there is nothing new here and that the delay in implementing a fee has resulted in a loss of $200 million to the Commonwealth. Imagine what that $200 million could mean to our schools, our social service agencies—even to our bottom line!
As we have come to expect, the recommendations that were voted on were not provided to the public—and in some cases, Friday was the first time that they were heard. While public input has been part of the process, it’s difficult to weigh in on something that you cannot see or review—and even more difficult when the vote is taken just after it’s read for the very first time.
Among those recommendations being reported are allowing forced pooling, encouraging the construction of intrastate pipelines, adding natural gas to a required portfolio of alternative power sources, imposing an impact fee, studying the impact on public health of drilling communities, requiring more distance between drilling sites and public water sources, and using higher education facilities to identify other uses for natural gas in the Commonwealth.
Back in May, I wrote in the News & Views about the need to address some of these issues:
“We all understand and acknowledge the future impact on jobs and the economy that the Marcellus shale industry can provide. It is for exactly that reason that we must address, rather than ignore, the negative issues surrounding this industry. We must work cooperatively to address what can be, and in some cases has already been, devastating results. Unlike the industries of the past, we cannot ignore the impacts on the health, safety and welfare of our residents.”
I also outlined what I thought we should be taking into consideration regarding this industry:
“The health, safety and welfare of our residents should be our priority and our largest concern. We should improve access to information on the chemicals and compounds used in hydrofracking. We should consider construction standards for private water wells and Marcellus shale wells. We should review bonding requirements for oil and gas wells and determine whether those amounts need to be increased. We need to ensure proper distances and set backs between well sites and water sources. We need to improve records and access to complaints and inspection reports to the public. We need to allow local communities to make decisions that are best for them in determining whether to allow drilling within their borders. And we need to continue the conversation with our residents, to hear their concerns and complaints, and we need to be responsive to the issues that they bring to us. That is why they elected us.”
I still believe those things today—and am not certain that what is in our residents’ best interests are at the heart of these recommendations. As just one example, take forced pooling. This is a practice where, by law, holdout landowners can be forced to lease their below-ground gas rights under certain conditions. Property rights are guaranteed in the Fifth Amendment of the United States Constitution—and property rights are ones that we should be very cautious about interfering with for any reason.
Although I have supported pooling legislation in the past, that has only been in the case where property owners have agreed to leases and the pooling is between the drilling companies—to limit the drilling and forced competing companies to work together to further limit the impact on the environment and the landowners. It, in no way, requires the landowners to do anything—and retains the property right that is inherent in their ownership.
This is an issue that I continue to work on—and one that I stand ready to discuss, debate and vote on—as I have for the past few years. The Senate Democratic Caucus has put together legislation, worked on developing policy and continues to look for ways for the Commonwealth to move forward on this issue. During the budget process, the Senate Democrats reached out to the House Democrats and put together a united House and Senate Democratic plan. The intent was to incorporate it into any Fiscal Code bill that may be moved as part of the final budget agreement. Although efforts during the final budget actions were not successful, we will remain vigilant for an opportunity to have meaningful protections and regulations put in place for this industry.