With a New Marcellus Law, Company Threatens to Leave Town Where it All Began

Mt. Pleasant, Washington County, is trying to limit where gas is drilled, piped, and processed. Gas has brought prosperity for many in Mount Pleasant, but headaches for others. The new law has sparked a heated debate over how best to reduce drilling's impact on rural Pennsylvania.

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Location location location. It's not just important in real estate. It's also a crucial factor in today's booming natural gas industry. Where to drill is in some ways as important an question as how it is done. How far away gas rigs should be from homes, schools, and waterways is becoming an important question as more wells are permitted. In Washington County, a new law is creating friction between one small town and a drilling company. The Allegheny Front's Reid Frazier reports.

FRAZIER: Consider Mount Pleasant Township, 20 miles from Downtown Pittsburgh. Its rolling hills are covered with horse farms, corn fields, and cow pasture. But underneath Mount Pleasant, there's something else--lots and lots of natural gas.

STEVENSON: We have over 100 wells, a processing facility; two compressor stations, miles and miles of pipelines, gathering stations, metering stations, all over the township.

FRAZIER: Mary Ann Stevenson, the township's manager, has seen the impact of gas development on Mount Pleasant. Heavy trucks rumble along country roads, hauling tankers full of water and chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing, also known as fracking. This is the method used to crack open mile-deep shale formations. Drillers have used fracking and horizontal drilling to harvest billions of cubic feet of natural gas from the township. It was here that the energy firm Range Resources drilled the stateís first Marcellus shale gas well, in 2004. Drilling was slow at first, says Stevenson.

STEVENSON: And then it was like overnight, they started coming rapidly. And then when the horizontal drilling came in, where they could put in 8, 10 wells on a pad. That's how we ended up with 100.

FRAZIER: On a ride through the township, Larry Chome points out the tell-tale signs of gas development--white pickup trucks, out of state licence plates, and warehouse-sized compressor stations. Chome is Mount Pleasant's zoning officer. In his job, he's seen others signs of the gas boom.

CHOME: I can kinda tell when the gas money comes in. People come in to put in their pools and new decks and new sheds for storage of their new lawnmower.

FRAZIER: A bonanza for some, but not all. He slows down near a house shielded by trees. Next door, a new dirt road, and work trucks. A pipeline is going in there.

CHOME: I had complaints from these people and they put in this road, she said I don't want a road next to my house. I said, "Sorry, I can't control it, there's nothing I can do."

FRAZIER: Until recently, there really was nothing Chome could do. It was up to the state to regulate oil and gas activity. But in 2009, the Pennsylvania supreme court ruled towns like Mount Pleasant could set some limits on gas activities. They couldn't ban it, or contradict state and federal rules. But they could limit where the drilling took place.

So the township created what's called a conditional use law. This means that if a company wants to drill, it has to tell neighbors exactly where the well pad will be. If the neighbors complain--a site is too close to a property line or a neighbor's house--the municipality can impose conditions on where drilling can take place. Here's Stevenson, the township manager.

STEVENSON: It's basically just changing the approval process. It's now giving us a little bit more control where we can regulate the environment that they drill in.

FRAZIER: Here's where things get a little tricky in Mt. Pleasant. The township cited Range for keeping trailers on its sites--that's against local zoning. Range then told Mount Pleasant if it passed its ordinance, it would leave. Other towns have similar laws but no company had ever threatened to leave because of one these local rules. There's some debate about what happened. Range says the ordinance came as a surprise. The township denies this. But the end result is the town passed its ordinance last week. And Range says once its current wells are completed, it will leave Mount Pleasant. Range spokesman Matt Pitzarella says his company doesn't want to negotiate with each of the state's many local governments.

Pitzarella: There's 2500 little units of government all with a different set of rules. We want them to have the ability regulate things. But we can't have 2500 sets of rules that change at any given time.

FRAZIER: Range and other drillers would prefer one set of rules for the entire state. But each town is different, says Joanne Wagner. She moved to Mount Pleasant six years ago. She's a full-time mom, and got involved in the drilling issue when she opened her garage door last year.

WAGNER: My daughter was a first grader, I was sending her out to get the bus and I opened up the garage door and was slammed in face by some sort of odor. That scared me.

FRAZIER: There was a well pad about a mile from her house, but tests on the air were inconclusive. Wagner's alarm grew when drilling started less than a half mile from her children's school. So she got involved with a local group drawing up limits on drilling. This led to the new conditional use law.

WAGNER: If they can strike a balance, and do it safely, in the community, then I think thatís fine, but I don't see that happening.

FRAZIER: But the industry warns these rules could become de facto local drilling bans. Range's Pitzarella.

PITZARELLA: What we have an objection to is an endless process. We have one community the process lasted 18 months.

FRAZIER: There are other movements afoot to minimize the impact of Marcellus Shale drilling. The Pennsylvania Environmental Council has proposed a rule that would require drillers to justify where they put their wells. If the legislature acts on this, and that's a big if, it could be in place next Spring.

As for Mount Pleasant, Range says it will move its rigs to less restrictive communities. It's nothing personal, says Pitzarella, the company spokesman. For Range, he says, it's strictly a business decision.

FOR THE ALLEGHENY FRONT, I'M REID FRAZIER.