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Promises, promises

The state budget bills passed earlier this month included a promise that the state legislature would pass a severance tax on the Marcellus Shale gas taken by the drillers, and that it would be enacted by October 1. But now it seems that different people have different ideas about exactly what was promised.

Most Pennsylvanians believe that the promise was to enact the tax. In fact, as concerns about the risks associated with drilling have gained prominence, citizens across the state are speaking out, not just for the tax, but for additional protections for our environment, our communities, and our economy.

But now it appears that the drillers believe that the promise was for more than just a tax - they want to link the tax to many sweeteners in return for not opposing the tax. They want to take away existing powers that local municipalities have to manage how, when, and where drilling will take place. They also want what they are calling "Fair Pooling," to allow them to force holdout landowners to lease their rights to the gas on terms that heavily favor the drillers. And they do not want to agree to minimum spacing requirements between well pads - a requirement that would ensure pooling would produce environmental benefits.

The drillers are not in any position to dictate the terms of the tax. Citizens are in an uproar throughout the state (and the nation) about the risks of deep natural gas drilling, and the standard operating procedures of the drillers. Seeing the incredible damage to wildlife and water - not to mention the people - from BP's tragic accident in the Gulf of Mexico makes most citizens pause about oil and gas drilling. The well head accident in Clearfield County, where natural gas and drilling wastewater contaminated with toxic chemicals spewed into the air for 16 hours, didn't increase the public's confidence in the industry, and the refusal of most in the industry to identify the toxic chemicals they use doesn't help. And the movie Gasland, with its startling video of families near drilling operations actually setting the water from their taps on fire, brought home the need for clear regulations protecting our waters. Against this background, lease agents are using high pressure sales tactics, and in some cases intimidation, to get signed drilling agreements - even in urban areas - while the industry refuses to say whether, in fact, it intends to drill in those areas.

Our elected and appointed public servants are responding to both the reality of the risks, and the increased concerns of the citizens. The Delaware River Basin Commission has declared a moratorium on all drilling in the Delaware watershed until new regulations are in place. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is studying the impact of deep natural gas drilling on the environment. U.S. Senator Robert P. Casey, Jr. (D-Scranton) has introduced legislation to require federal oversight on the drilling. Pennsylvania State Senator Jim Ferlo (D-Allegheny) is introducing legislation for a one-year moratorium on all deep drilling in Pennsylvania, and Pittsburgh City Council just unanimously passed a motion to support Ferlo's plan. The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection is holding the industry accountable, withdrawing permits and levying heavy fines on bad actors, and has just enacted what may be the nation's strongest regulations on drilling wastewater, requiring drillers to clean their wastewater to drinking water standards if they want to dispose of it in our waterways.

With all these concerns, it would be easy to forget that the natural gas in the Marcellus Shale provides us with a way to quickly reduce air pollution and global warming, since this gas will help us move away from coal and oil, two of the dirtiest forms of energy. But just as we shouldn't ignore the tremendous opportunity the natural gas presents, neither should we be blind to the tremendous damage drilling could cause.

The drilling industry's attempt to dictate the terms on which they will accept a severance tax is an arrogant power play. It's time for the drillers to agree to the tax with no strings attached, and for the legislature to pass the tax.

The promise to the citizens is the one that should be kept.
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