Top 5 Things To Watch For At Today’s Marcellus Commission Meeting

Republican Governor Tom Corbett’s Marcellus Shale Advisory Commission is charged with offering policy suggestions on, as Corbett put it in March,“how we can build around this new industry and how we can make certain we do this while protecting our lands, our drinking water, our air, and our communities, all the while growing our workforce.”

The 30-member panel votes on its final recommendations today. Their session begins at 9:30, and should wrap up before four.

StateImpact will be live-blogging the whole thing. As you read our coverage, here are five key factors to watch for:

To Fee or Not to Fee? Earlier this week, top Senate Republican aide Drew Crompton broke down the commission’s work along these lines: “It comes down to two things,” he said. “The fee, and everything else.”

He’s right. Legislative support for some sort of impact fee on energy companies has steadily grown over the past few years. An impact fee had a good chance of passing last month – until Corbett threatened to veto any legislation that reached his desk before the commission’s report. These suggestions will likely shape Corbett’s parameters for what sort of fee he’d accept, what plan would violate his promise not to raise any new taxes. Will the commission support or reject a fee? And if so, how specific will their recommendations be?

Who Will Crash the Party? Anti-drilling activists flooded the commission’s early meetings, largely to protest what they saw as its one-sided nature. (Check out Pipeline’s list of members to see how many donated money to Corbett’s gubernatorial campaign.) The high – or low – water mark came at the April meeting, when longtime Harrisburg gadfly Gene Stilp crawled under the commission’s desks, and sprang up to call Lieutenant Governor Jim Cawley a “prostitute.” Since then, however, the meetings have been relatively quiet. Will protestors show up today? I’m told the groups who put together the big spring events aren’t organizing anything, but we don’t know whether drilling opponents will show up on their own.

Double Secret? Top Secret? Not-So-Secret? The Patriot-News’ Don Gilliland shook things up yesterday with a report warning the commission would vote in public, but its specific recommendations would remain secret, until the final report is published on July 22. Later in the day, Cawley clarified things to reporters. Yes, the recommendations won’t be released [today], he said – but observers and reporters will be able to understand what they’ll be, based on the commission’s lengthy public discussions. So the question is, how much will we be able to figure out? (If the answer is not much, then liveblogging will certainly get a bit more difficult…)

Will Commission “Go There” on Hot-Button Issues? There isn’t much drilling policy that’s more contentious than “forced pooling” and possible restrictions on local zoning. First, pooling: In New York and other states – and here in Pennsylvania, when it comes to other minerals – drillers have the right to extract material from under an unwilling property owner’s land, under the right circumstances. (Those circumstances usually involve a critical mass of mineral rights on surrounding land.) Energy companies are pushing for a similar law covering gas in the Marcellus Shale, but so far, Corbett has opposed the idea.

On local zoning: Senate President Pro Tem Joe Scarnati’s impact fee would restrict municipalities’ abilities to pass laws regulating drilling. Energy companies complain they’re facing a checkerboard of different regulations in every township, and would like to see more zoning consistency. Local officials, of course, defend their right to pass their own laws.

Will the commission offer recommendations on either of these issues?

Kabuki Dance? During a 2009 House hearing, Pennsylvania’s most verbose legislator, Democrat Bill DeWeese, defined kabuki as, “a pantomime of stilted and false formality.” The commission’s critics argue it’s simply a vehicle for the Corbett Administration to “suggest” the drilling policies it already wants. The amount of debate and dissent during today’s vote could show whether the commission’s members are really deliberating and formulating suggestions, or simply engaged in kabuki.

The fun starts at 9:30, and we’ll begin blogging around nine.


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