County Commissioners Share Task Force Insights on Marcellus Play
Posted: August 16, 2010
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- County officials may sometimes find themselves in spots "between a rock and a hard place" when it comes to pleasing their constituents, and the boom in Marcellus Shale exploration in recent months has unearthed additional tough spots for local decision makers.
While the impact of the shale-gas boom is uncharted terrain for local governments, county officials around the state are mapping out plans to respond to new economic and environmental challenges and to share those insights with others.
Three county commissioners -- Mark Smith of Bradford County, Pamela Tokar-Ickes of Somerset County and Paul Heimel of Potter County -- will be the featured speakers during a free, Web-based seminar titled, "Local Natural Gas Task Force Initiatives," which will air at 1 p.m. on Aug. 19. Sponsored by Penn State Cooperative Extension, the "webinar" will provide an overview of how county task forces are responding to the ramp-up of shale-gas exploration in their respective counties.
Information about how to register for the webinar is available at http://extension.psu.edu/naturalgas/webinars. Online participants will have the opportunity to ask the speakers questions during the session.
Just as the practice of hydrofracturing disrupts shale formations underground to release pockets of natural gas for consumption, the influence of the industry itself has shaken some environmental and social foundations, causing new issues to surface for discussion. The panelists will address some of the potential gains, problems and public pressures their task forces have encountered.
Local issues include favorable and negative economic impacts of the industry, water use, water quality, environmental concerns, increased noise and truck traffic, wear and tear on roads, loss of local personnel to gas-company jobs, and greater demand on municipal services, including police, ambulance, volunteer fire departments, social service agencies and even jails.
There is also ample debate over use of public lands, payout of royalties from public lands and private ownership of mineral rights beneath public lands. Local officials support the idea of returning funds to the locales where gas initially is harvested through local "carve-outs" in the proposed gas severance tax, but they are uncertain about the final form that legislation will take or the funding formulas it will use.
The counties -- two in the northern tier and one on Pennsylvania's southern border -- are in different places along the gas-boom developmental timeline and have different perspectives to offer, according to Pamela Tokar-Ickes, who has served as a Somerset County commissioner for 10 years. She said that the market conditions that created a temporary slowdown in Marcellus Shale exploration served as an asset for Somerset County officials, allowing them to "re-tool" their response.
"We have some lead time that not all counties have had," she said. "We’re not sure what the future is going to look like here, but we're trying to take lessons learned from colleagues up in Potter, Lycoming and Bradford counties. Washington and Greene counties have been seeing the impact for some time, but it's new for Somerset."
While so far this year Somerset County has fewer than 10 active wells and the state has issued 28 permits for new wells in the county, Bradford County by contrast has more than 350 active wells and 1,083 newly-issued well permits in 2010, according to Commissioner Mark Smith. He said his county also holds more than 300 well-pad sites containing 1,000 proposed wells, and gas companies already have installed approximately 85 miles of large transport lines and 300 miles of gathering lines for natural gas. He said the industry also has put in 21 miles of water lines, 21 water withdrawal sites and 35 water impoundment ponds.
Potter County falls somewhere in the middle, picking up more momentum as Marcellus activity moves westward, although the intensity of exploration is still similar to that in Somerset County. Commissioner Paul Heimel said his county had only a dozen working wells at the beginning of 2010, but 17 more wells have been drilled since then, bringing the total to 29. Industry leaders, according to Hiemel, have said many more are coming.
Heimel recalled that within days of taking the oath of office in January 2008, the Potter County Board of Commissioners was engaged in the Marcellus Shale natural gas issue. "The first inkling that something big was around the corner was an influx of abstracters, title searchers and land men in the courthouse and out in the rural reaches of the county, clearing up rights issues and offering leases," he said.
Heimel said Potter County has had waves of prosperity, including some gas activity and manufacturing to complement the mainstays of agriculture, forest products and a lively tourist business based on its abundant natural resources. He noted that citizens also were wary of downturns, citing an experience of "tremendous economic boom and environmental travesty during the lumber era from roughly 1890 to 1910," followed years later by the "meteoric rise and devastating collapse of Adelphia [cable television company] from the mid-1980s to 2002," which he said cost his small county nearly 2,000 jobs.
He said some people wanted the task force to be more activist but said the board's initial conclusion was to recognize the fact that county government "is largely powerless to control the big issues" when it comes to the development of the gas industry.
"Decisions on the key issues -- taxation and environmental regulation -- are in the hands of the state government," Heimel said, adding that public education and bringing together divergent interests, from industry representatives to environmentalists, remain the twin missions of their task force.
Smith echoes this sentiment. "One of the challenges is the fact that the county really doesn't have any regulatory authority over this. So the only involvement we have is through public education and being able to bring certain parties together to solve problems," he said.
"As a commissioner, you can't sit in judgment one way or another. You have to refer people to the right place. If they have a water issue, get them to DEP. If it's a road issue, have them contact PennDOT. If it's a problem with a royalty check, see an attorney."
All three commissioners agree that the information load is enormous. "I've filled three filing cabinet drawers full of clippings, studies, reports, regulations, editorials, analyses and more -- and that's after purging," Heimel said. "There is so much misinformation and propaganda circulating that many people are looking for somewhere they can turn to get the straight scoop, and I think the Potter County Natural Gas Task Force has earned that reputation."
"Ferreting out the public relations from the fact -- and that goes both ways -- you have to have a very careful eye toward the information," said Tokar-Ickes. She said that until July 2008, most people didn't know about Marcellus.
And it's not just the amount of information, but the complexity of the issues that can bog down commissioners' educational efforts. Zoning regulations are often cited as the most effective means to influence gas drilling operations, yet countywide zoning plans are few and far between. In addition, no townships in Potter County and very few townships in Bradford or Somerset counties have any kind of zoning ordinances. Public officials are working with one another to cross county lines to craft some solutions."
The prospect of a "local carve-out" that could relieve local-taxpayer burdens appeals greatly to county officials statewide. The County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania (CCAP) lobbied heavily to pass Senate Bill 1042, the state's fiscal code, which formally approves an extraction tax on Pennsylvania natural gas. Municipal expenses are expected to escalate as drilling activity increases.
"The communities that are going to feel the impact should see the benefit from that severance," said Tokar-Ickes. "It needs to come back not only to the counties, but to the municipalities and conservation organizations that are doing the work on protecting our environment on the ground."
Other officials are concerned that funds could still be diverted to the state's General Fund. "What does Tioga have to do with paying SEPTA?" quipped Heimel, concerned that severance funds could be appropriated to bail out Philadelphia's mass-transit system. "CCAP has asked all the counties to quantify expenses that have risen or are expected to rise to make its carve-out. We are facilitating the industry, and it's inexcusable to ignore those aspects when that money is distributed."
"Roads and water, those are things you can see," Smith added. "The things people don't understand are the impacts on volunteer fire departments, social services, drug and alcohol prevention, jails, and state police." He said that 60 to 70 out-of-state, gas-drilling workers had gone through his county's jail system and that a few extra inmates each month added a huge taxpayer expense to a small institution.
The "Local Natural Gas Task Force Initiatives" webinar is part of an ongoing series of workshops addressing issues related to the state's Marcellus shale gas boom. The next one-hour webinar will be held at 1 p.m. on Sept. 16: "Natural Gas Experiences of Marcellus Residents: Preliminary Results from the Community Satisfaction Survey"; Presenter: Kathy Brasier, Penn State.
Previous webinars, which covered topics such as water use and quality, zoning, and gas-leasing considerations for landowners and implications for local communities, can be viewed at http://extension.psu.edu/naturalgas/webinars.
For more information, contact Joann Kowalski, extension educator in Susquehanna County, at (570) 278-1158 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
EDITORS: Contact Bradford County Commissioner Mark Smith at (570) 265-1727 or by e-mail at email@example.com; Somerset County Commissioner Pamela Tokar-Ickes at (814) 445-1400 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org; and Potter County Commissioner Paul Heimel at (814) 274-8290 or by e-mail at email@example.com.
reprinted from the Penn State Ag Sciences News 8/13/2010