Southeastern PA Republicans Oppose Local Zoning Restrictions in SB1100/HB1950

State Senator Erickson Too Sensible for Harrisburg

It’s not everyday you meet a Pennsylvania State Senator. Rarer still do you have an hour-long discussion about Marcellus shale gas with a Republican who, along with eight members of his caucus, opposes key points in Governor Corbett’s Marcellus bill, SB1100. Nevertheless, that’s how I spent the afternoon. I tagged along with a small band of well-informed water activists to call on Senator Edwin Erickson [R-26th District, Delaware and Chester Counties]. We had no agenda but to express our opposition to hydraulic fracturing, and to thank the senator for his January 26, 2012 letter to the governor, posted in StateImpact Pennsylvania, which pointed to deep flaws in SB1100.

For the leader of a district where there is no gas drilling, Erickson has impressive knowledge of Marcellus issues. Clearly, he’s no stranger to the complexities of energy and the local economy – his district will be profoundly impacted by the possible closing of the Sunoco’s Marcus Hook refinery. “Gas is a part of that,” he noted.

In March 2011, Senator Erickson proposed a severance tax on shale gas drilling, one that would have been comparable to and competitive with other shale gas producing states. Corbett, however, having taken the Norquist no-tax pledge, wanted no part of any bill with the T-word in it, so a revised Impact Fee bill from Senate Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati [R-  25th District] gained more traction. For a while, two different bills vied for the legislative limelight in the house and senate, HB1950 ad SB1100 respectively. Eventually, the two become one, and along came SB1100 as we now know it.

According to five major environmental stakeholders in Pennsylvania, including Clean Water ActionEarthworks, PennEnvironment, Delaware Riverkeeper Network and Sierra Club, SB1100 is flawed in three major ways:

  • SB1100 would strip local Zoning Boards of their right to determine where gas-related activities can be developed, undermining our communities’ ability to maintain the character and safety of our locales.
  • SB1100 only increases setbacks from public water supplies to 1,000 feet, and only 300 feet for private water supplies, though many environmental scientists agree that 3,000 feet would be a more adequate buffer.
  • SB1100 limits the distribution of a relatively low Impact Fee, leaving millions of people in counties downstream “high and dry” in the event of ancillary impacts and accidents.

Today, Governor Corbett’s letter to Senator Scarnati, was also posted at StateImpact Pennsylvania. He makes the case for SB1100, saying it provides for local zoning board control while also promoting much needed “consistency” for gas drillers. Senator Erickson, along with many other legislators in neighboring counties, regard the bill’s the language as prescriptive, thereby diminishing local zoning authority.

In trying to discern if opposition to SB1100 generally runs along party lines, I was intrigued to learn that this issue highlights a more nuanced divide in the Pennsylvania GOP. Here, it’s not so much a matter of Republicans vs. Democrats, rather it’s Western-Rural Arch-Conservatives vs. Their Moderate Brethren from the more densely populated regions in the Southeast.

There are no zoning laws in some of these western counties,” Erickson pointed out, something I hadn’t realized. These districts are so large and sparsely populated, they have little need for local zoning ordinances. But here, in and around Philadelphia, it’s difficult to imagine life without them! SB1100 deprives Southeastern, urban and suburban Pennsylvanians of the local zoning protections they have historically, and rightfully, enjoyed. Instead of attending a local zoning board hearing about local gas drilling concerns, average citizens would have to take it up with the state Attorney General.

Not In Anyone’s Backyard

We have two children, and we don’t parent both kids in exactly the same way. Sure, we have rules – consistency – but we take our cue from the needs of that particular child. Similarly, our communities deserve an appropriately individualized approach. Just like people, no two counties are alike. As shale gas-related activity increases, such as piplelines, compressor stations and the like, we ought to be bolstering the viability of our local zoning boards to ensure their authority to protect our common spaces. Even in the ultra-polemic Bizzaro World of the Marcellus, this seems like the more traditionally Conservative approach.

Erickson is on the frontline of the Marcellus debate, and he appears to find himself regrettably pitted against members of his own party. And here I thought Democrats had it tough in Pennsylvania. He won’t say how he’ll vote when SB1100 comes to the floor because he hasn’t seen the final bill, or its wording. One thing that may factor into his final decision will be the level of the Impact Fee and its distribution. If it’s high enough, it might sway him.

Don’t forget,” he reminded us, “there are important environmental protections in it, too.

Don’t worry, Senator, we didn’t forget.

~

Visit Clean Water Action to support local control of industrial gas activity in your community.

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