Déjà vu?

This past week, a Crosby Stills & Nash song has been lingering on my mind….”If I had ever been here before I would probably know just want to do…Don’t you?”

I’ve been reflecting back to earlier Shale Days, 2010 to be exact.  In the 2010 Fall,  the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund published and distributed to pretty much every Pennsylvania county and municipality their Hydraulic Fracturing Model Ordinance.  The goal of the ordinance was primarily to restrict shale gas development in Pennsylvania with a ban.   This followed with a more middle of the road approach, by the Pennsylvania State Association of Township Supervisors publication and distribution of their “Model Zoning Ordinance for Oil & Gas Exploration.”  You’ve got to hand it to PSATS, at the time; they did attempt to assist townships with a reasonable approach to gas exploration within our communities.  Trouble is the Northern Tier Region largely lacks an abundance of zoned municipalities.  About six months after PSATS issued their model ordinance, I was present at a Marcellus Shale Advisory Commission meeting in Harrisburg, where Katherine Klaber of the Marcellus Shale Coalition, gave a very effective presentation to the MSAC on the difficulties of zoning, how unreasonable it was, and how they wanted predictability and consistancy.  I seem to recall, however, my memory may be failing, that she compared operators following zoning to having to have a different driver’s license for every county and township, Pennsylvania has 2,600 local governments as the MSC often likes to remind us.  I knew as I sat in that meeting, the MSC had now declared war on local control or zoning within the Commonwealth.

We had two extremes – CELDF & MSC one striving to ban drilling everywhere and one striving to drill everywhere.  PSATS in the middle, with more criticism than support at the time it seemed.  And, it also seemed that PSATS was trying to provide reliable information as was based somewhat on existing case law.  However, the MSC was not going to let this go down without a fight, so they effectively promoted ideas that resulted in Act 13’s zoning provisions that were overturned December 23, 2013.    Just a little history, so that by now, perhaps you may be starting to hum Déjà vu too.

Recently, we’ve had some unique twists across the state.  More than the few I will mention here, but the MSC must be overly concerned about the nature of trying to drill wells within the Commonwealth.  For some operators recently, it has become as unpredictable as trying to grab a stuffed animal in an arcade game.  Some folks as you know are pretty gifted at grabbing the prize, while others, no matter how many times they try, they seem to come up empty.

Such is the case with three recent events, and I know there are at least a couple more.  In Lycoming County, Inflection Energy was aiming to site a well pad in an area that Penn Future led us to believe was pretty much right in the middle of a residential area, yet Philly Reporter Andrew Maykuth reported only one home was within a thousand feet and 20 more were within 3,000 feet.  We are certainly concerned about folks living within a 1,000 feet of well pads and compressor stations.  If their environ was formerly a quiet rural location, chances are it no longer is.  We have concerns about the air quality for these folks so close to gas industry development.    The landowners apparently live in a nearby town.  Landowners do have some flexibility in the siting of pads on their properties, and as a good neighbor, it would be wise to consider their neighbors who will be living within 1,000 feet of a facility especially when they have no input regarding the siting.  The township issued a conditional approval, so they must’ve placed some conditions on the operator, but at present no news article has published the conditions that we are aware.   Within the last week, Judge Lovecchi of the Lycoming County Court of Common Pleas ruled in favor of the residents citing the December Supreme Court ruling and that within the residential district drilling failed to demonstrate a compatible use.

Also this past week in regards to a Rex Energy well pad capable of hosting nine wells,  Butler Township in Butler County, refused to vote.   It was noted that the plan meets the ordinance but that it was too close to the residential houses, and they didn’t like the plan.  So, now the project will advance to the Butler County Planning Commission lacking any township recommendation.

And during the summer, the Wyoming County Planning Commission voted not to grant preliminary approval to D&I Silica for a rail sand transfer station in Tunkhannock Township where there is no zoning in place.  The preliminary approval was denied despite as the Director of Planning noted, they had met all the requirements.  D&I Silica has now filed an appeal which will be heard in the county court this October.

Folks, we’ve got some problems here, and I wonder if a storm is brewing.   One thing to say straight up – is municipalities and counties need to follow their regulations and rules.  They must, that is to the benefit of all parties, both the public and the operators.  If the municipality or county lacks regulations or feels they are insufficient, they need to work on making them reasonable and adequate.  This is not the first year of shale exploration here; it is about the sixth year of incredible activity.    Secondly, operators need to do better.  Operators, need to do better.  Obviously, people have concerns because they perceive these locations to be poor sitings.   We don’t need more poor sitings.  There are plenty; as an average Shaler myself, I can readily rattle off a list of poor sitings.   We didn’t move to Rome folks, the operators came to our communities and they need to operate more respectfully, regardless whether they are operating in zoned or non-zoned municipalities.   I’ve heard too many times operators say, we follow all the local ordinances, well, sometimes, more often than not, there are no local ordinances and how respectful are the operations?  Apparently not enough as here are two zoned municipalities with strong gate keepers saying hey, no.  Those in the non-zoned municipalities, especially concerning the siting of well pads, have no input whatsoever if they are not the landowner.

This week, I was at a meeting and asked “what is a good distance for a home setback from a well-pad?”  Well, that is interesting as we have no data, no facts.  The industry really liked the 300 feet afforded to us by the state in the early Shale years.   There is no doubt about it, 300 feet is too close, just talk to someone who is living that close.  500 feet became a magic negotiated distance in some leases and later in Act 13.  Is 500 feet enough to provide adequate dispersion of emissions from the producing well site, drilling rigs and fracturing engines?  The operators will tell us “yes.”   Frankly, I’m not so sure, in fact, I’m not sure at all.  Over the years I consulted with a number of folks involved in air quality and there is not enough information regarding adjacent “yard space” as I call it – for folks that live near sites.   When we commented about this in this past June’s comment period on the Ambient Air Monitoring Network Plan, the DEP response was “If a study were to be conducted, it would most likely be a health-based one, which would not be conducted by the department.”   So, who would do this study, the legislature would need to fund it, apparently there is no money or no interest or both.  In the meantime, our air is changing, and we don’t even know if the setbacks created are sufficient for the health of folks living nearby.

This is like walking on eggshells, the industry is not going to be happy with the manner in which counties and municipalities are prohibiting their operations.  We’ve been here before.  Extremes don’t cut it folks!

What we need are reasonable measures, we need information to know, how close is too close to live next to well pads, and compressor stations for a start.  In the meantime, operators who want to be respectful of our communities and want to continue to operate within the present setbacks need to start voluntarily doing effective mitigations.  Conquer the noise and conquer the air quality issues.  Noise mitigation technologies exist and they need to be sufficiently employed.  SCR technology considered not so reliable in the early shale years is now considered reliable.  SCR technology considerably reduces NOx and CO emissions.  The industry needs to place a priority on reducing air toxics as well.  The LNG plant proposed for Susquehanna County will enable every operator in our region an opportunity to use natural gas for drilling and fracturing.   Some operators are already using natural gas and others are gradually transitioning.   Some appear not to be making the effort.  They need to get with the program, it will not only improve our regional air quality but also it will save them money and make their shareholders happy.  We’ve heard and seen the commercials, natural gas is clean and economical – operators need to utilize it in the field.   Operators also need to review their drilling plans.  Well pad spacing also needs to be better, otherwise the rural character of our region will for decades be dramatically changed.

So, while it may seem like we are entering into a new experience, let us not fail to recognize the Déjà vu and do better.  When necessary, municipalities and county governments need to create reasonable regulations and enforce them.  Operators need to respect our communities and rural neighborhoods and regardless of zoning, do right by the neighbors with good sitings, and the use of technologies that will provide for noise mitigation and reduce air emissions.

Emily Krafjack, President