Cranberry’s Board of Supervisors is about to take up what could become a sensitive topic: drilling into the Marcellus Shale for gas. Pennsylvania law says that unless we specify where it’s permitted, Marcellus Shale drilling can go anywhere in Cranberry Township. Not only that, state law bars local government from regulating anything the Commonwealth regulates, including Marcellus Shale drilling.
At least right now, the only way a municipality can regulate drilling is to zone for where it may be permitted – and it has to be permitted somewhere. Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection preempts local government from regulating any other aspect of the operation. By June of this year alone, the DEP had issued 1,985 new Marcellus drilling permits, and 763 wells in the state are either completed or under construction.
To my knowledge, there is no Marcellus Shale drilling proposed within the Township, at least not at this time. But our Board of Supervisors doesn’t want to wake up one morning and see drilling rigs where they would least expect them. So they’re being proactive about it. You can read the zoning ordinance they're considering on our website: Proposed Natural Gas Ordinance
The reason for all this concern is the huge volume of natural gas found in the Marcellus Shale layer, about a mile below the surface. It’s a massive rock formation, and geologists estimate that it contains more than 300 trillion cubic feet of gas – enough to supply the entire nation for decades. Even if only a fraction of that were recovered, it could become an economic bonanza for the entire region and a game-changing event in America’s energy picture.
Since the first successful well was built in Washington County seven years ago, there has been something of a land rush to secure leases on property for constructing wells into the Marcellus layer. So far, most of them have been in rural areas, including state parks. That’s understandable because these wells generally require a big surface footprint – five acres is typical – as well as connecting pipelines, heavy truck traffic and the associated noise, all of which would seem to make them poorly suited to residential areas.
But that’s not necessarily the case. According to the Post-Gazette, at least 57 parcels of property in densely populated Lawrenceville, right in the heart of Pittsburgh, are already under agreement with gas leasing agents. And that’s despite the fact that state law prohibits deep well drilling within 200 feet of an occupied building. The reality is that unless a community zones for that type of activity, drilling can go anywhere. So Cranberry is taking the initiative to zone for that possibility.
It’s a situation that puts local government in the touchy position of balancing a landowner’s ability to maximize the return on his or her land against the interests of the larger community which may be affected by the impact of that activity.
But doing nothing means drilling could go anywhere. So on August 5, the Board will hold a public hearing on a proposed zoning ordinance affecting gas resource development. An informed, educated and civil discussion among our residents will help us meet this challenge. And I’m confident we will succeed because meeting challenges is precisely what Cranberry Township is about.