Thursday, May 24, 2012

"All Politics is Local," Except When it Isn't

How 'Fracking' Works
Although there is little chance anyone will begin drilling for natural gas in Upper Pottsgrove Township any time soon, the commissioners Monday nevertheless voted unanimously Monday to support a bill that would ensure they would have some say in the matter should it happen.

Their vote represents one voice among a growing municipal chorus opposing Act 13, enacted on Valentine's Day by the Pennsylvania General Assembly, that would, among other things, exempt any kind of gas or oil drilling operation in Pennsylvania from most kinds of local control.

The bill comes in the wake of the Marcellus shale gas drilling boom. Marcellus shale is a geological formation that has trapped millions of cubic feet of natural gas in tiny pockets in a sedimentary rock that was once mud that has been pressed and compacted into rock.

In the east, it stretches from West Virginia to Newfoundland, but by-passes much of southeastern Pennsylvania. In much of the rest of the commonwealth, however, it is ever- present and, now, it's big business.

The gas is extracted hydraulically, by pumping chemical-filled water at high pressure into the rock, fracturing it (or "fracking" it), and releasing the gas.

The concern with Act 13, the commissioners explained Monday, is not so much that they fear an influx of unregulated well-drillers, so much as the precedent of the Commonwealth taking control away from local government.

"This is similar to what the state tried to do with quarrying," Township Solicitor Charles D. Garner Jr. told the commissioners.

He was referring to Senate Bill 898, proposed by Sen. Robert Tomlinson, R-6th Dist., a politician who received generous contributions from various members of the Silvi family, who run the company that has been frustrated in its attempts to open a quarry in New Hanover.

As The Mercury reported last year, New Hanover Township Solicitor Paul Bauer said it pretty plainly when the supervisors there were passing a similar resolution in opposition to SB 898: "This bill being proposed by Sen. Tomlinson was only introduced on March 25, just several months after Sen. Tomlinson received large campaign contributions from both Lawrence and John Silvi, as well as Monique Silvi, owners of Gibraltar Rock Quarries," Bauer said.

Is the same thing at work with Act 13?

The National Institute on Money in State Politics informs us that:
  • Fourteen Marcellus Shale Advisory Commission members and several of their spouses contributed a combined total of $442,347 to Corbett's campaigns for attorney general (2004, 2008, 2010) and governor (2010).
  • Almost all contributions to Gov. Corbett from Marcellus Shale Advisory Commission members came from either current or former oil and gas executives and lobbyists.
  • In the 2010 election, donors from the oil and gas industry favored Tom Corbett by more than 10:1, giving his campaign $1.3 million while only contributing $130,300 to his opponent, Dan Onorato.
  • Energy sector donors contributed a combined $768,438 to the legislators sitting on the House and Senate Environmental Resources & Energy committees.
 Presumably, the fact that gas drilling companies were among the largest contributors to Gov. Tom Corbett's election campaign has no bearing on his signing a law that allows "big government" to grab authority away from local governments to benefit an industry that helped him get elected.

Like the proposed quarrying law, Act 13 "requires municipalities to allow oil and gas operations except for processing plants, in ALL zoning districts," according to the resolution unanimously adopted by the Upper Pottsgrove commissioners Monday.

Some argue Act 13 is a power grab by energy-funded state politicians.
"It's the precedent of pre-emption which could be troublesome," Garner said."If it's allowed here, it could set a precedent of allowing the state to extract authority bit by bit from townships and boroughs."

Act 13 "removes all meaningful zoning and planning authority from local governments as to the oil and gas industry, while all other entities, be they individual, corporate or institutional, still must abide by local ordinances," the resolution reads.

Eliminating local zoning restrictions would leave the township with "very little control" over a a natural gas operation that wanted to open up in Upper Pottsgrove, however unlikely, said Commissioners Chairman Elwood Taylor.

"We would rather control what goes on in our own towns and not give it all away to the state," he said.

With the passage of its resolution, Upper Pottsgrove now officially "opposes the conveyance of special rights and privileges to the oil and gas industry, to the detriment of the rights and privileges of all others."

"Act 13 violates both the Pennsylvania and U.S. Constitutions, creating a zoning scheme that supersedes the protections local officials have sworn to uphold; as well as the health, safety and welfare of its residents that local officials must protect," the resolution reads

Speaking of health ...

Some say since 'fracking' began in their area, their
water has become polluted to the point that it catches
That can't be healthy.
In addition to taking local control away from the governments representing the people who live there, as I posted Sunday, Act 13 also takes away a doctor's ability to talk to the people who live there and may become sick from the drilling.

Under a provision buried in the law, doctors in Pennsylvania can access information about chemicals used in natural gas extraction -- but they won't be able to share it with their patients. 

The resolution passed by Upper Pottsgrove does not involve the township in a lawsuit brought by several towns and boroughs, some of Bucks County, and the Delaware Riverkeeper.

Arguments in that lawsuit will be made before the state's nine-member Commonwealth Court between June 4 and 8 in Harrisburg.


  1. Somebody call Erin Brokovitch...

  2. Back in October 2011, Lower Pottsgrove commissioners voted to support Upper Frederick, New Hanover and other municipalities in their stand against Tomlinson's quarrying bill. The township acknowledged it had a vested interest in that fight; the H&K Group continues a huge quarrying operation in Sanatoga. The article here:

    It will be interesting to see if other municipalities in greater Pottstown take the same approach as Upper Pottsgrove against Act 13, even if it has no direct (or at least, foreseeably direct) impact on them.

    Finally, a reminder: Marcellus shale is the tip of the fracking iceberg. Below it is the far richer, more extensive, and potentially higher yielding Utica shale bed.

  3. Obviously what is going on here is those in government want to make sure they get their kick backs into their private accounts should any drilling wants to be done.