Senate President Pro Tem Joe Scarnati is growing impatient. He doesn’t want to wait any longer to pass a comprehensive bill dealing with natural gas drilling. On the state House’s first day back in Harrisburg since June, the Jefferson County Republican set a deadline. “I want it moved in October,” he told the Pennsylvania Press Club, referring to a bill creating a drilling impact fee, and imposing safety and zoning regulations. “I am tired of being here, holding the bag year after year, trying to get this done.”
Lawmakers have been attempting to pass some sort of drilling tax or fee since 2009. A heavy fee passed the House in 2009 and 2010, but never saw any Senate action.
Scarnati is far and away the most high-profile impact fee advocate in legislative leadership, and was vocally frustrated when a levy on gas drillers wasn’t included in this year’s budget. Governor Corbett is now voicing support for a measure that sends money back to counties and municipalities where drilling takes place, but House Republican leaders have stayed cool to the proposal.
House Majority Leader Mike Turzai isn’t too interested in natural gas drilling, at least when it comes to addressing it via legislation. Now that he’s gotten an “on-time, no tax budget” – the priority he listed again and again, whenever he was asked a Marcellus Shale question, Turzai has focused on privatizing state-owned liquor stores.
Well, Scarnati is now ready to play ball, if Turzai wants his Liquor Control Board bill taken seriously in the Senate.
During the press club question-and-answer session, moderator Brad Bumsted asked whether Scarnati was “really opposed to [Turzai’s plan], or just trying to leverage a gas tax fee out of the governor and House.”
“Both,” replied Scarnati, in a revealing answer.
“I look at the issues that are in front of us – the governor has priorities. The House leadership has priorities. I’ve got a priority. My priority is clearly Marcellus Shale. Moving this issue, getting it done and putting it to bed.”
“Now, we can all stand at the sink this fall and look at each other, or we can help each other wash our hands and get some of these things done ….so leveraging has always been a part of business around here. Ed Rendell taught us how to leverage well. I went to school for four years. The Ed Rendell School of leverage. And I’ve got to tell you, there are some issues there that help move other issues.” The former Democratic governor was a master at grinding the legislative agenda to a halt, until he got what he wanted. That’s the main reason why Pennsylvania went from 2002 to 2010 without a single on-time state budget.
Scarnati wants whatever Marcellus Shale bill passes to address three components: an impact fee, safety regulations, and zoning restrictions. On the fee, Scarnati expressed confidence lawmakers could agree on a system that generates $200 million in annual revenue without cutting into drilling profits. His initial bill delivered the bulk of money to counties and municipalities hosting drilling, with additional funding going to statewide environmental efforts.
On safety, Scarnati said, “there is a real concern about water. Protecting water supplies, municipal and home well water.” He called for additional well setbacks (the minimal distance between a drilling pad and water source), but shied away from creating new statewide standards for private water wells.
That’s something drilling companies have pushed for, saying it would reduce methane migration. But after his speech, Scarnati warned a statewide law would float like a lead balloon. “You want to see a revolt? You start telling people back in these rural areas that you’ve got to have a certain standard, monitored. That’s just not going to fly in rural Pennsylvania.”
The third angle Scarnati wants to address is zoning. He caught serious heat earlier this year, by proposing to exclude municipalities from receiving any impact fee revenue, if their local drilling regulations were deemed too harsh. “I’m not yet giving up on that,” Scarnati said today. “We’ve got to find a clear balance…so we can find predictability and consistency across the whole state.”
“The reality of the zoning issue is, we have a lot of municipalities passing zoning ordinances that are going to be challenged in court. And it’s going to cost them money, and it’s going to cause problems throughout the industry.” (This American Life produced a full show on one Washington County community’s legal battle with Range Resources, over local ordinances.)
What happens next? Governor Corbett is expected to unveil a comprehensive drilling bill of his own later this week. The Republican governor has said he shares Scarnati’s goal of passing and signing a bill this fall.