World and Nation

Drilling payments cause a dispute in Pennsylvania

PHILADELPHIA — Four Pennsylvania townships are challenging a state regulator’s decision to withhold their share of proceeds from a statewide levy on drilling by the booming natural gas industry there.

The townships, in a heavily drilled area of southwestern Pennsylvania, were excluded from a list of 35 counties and 1,485 municipalities that will receive a total of $108.7 million from a new “impact fee” charged to energy companies to help compensate for the effects of gas drilling on local communities.

The payout, the first under a new state law, was announced by Gov. Tom Corbett on Monday, two days before a Pennsylvania Supreme Court hearing on whether the law can pre-empt local control over where gas companies can put installations like drilling pads, compressor stations or wastewater ponds.

The townships are among a group of plaintiffs that won a ruling from a state appeals court in July that the pre-emption of local ordinances by the new law is unconstitutional and unenforceable. The Corbett administration appealed the ruling to the State Supreme Court, which heard oral arguments on the case Wednesday.

The natural gas industry, which has drilled thousands of wells into the Marcellus Shale rock formation since 2008, argues that it should not have to deal with a patchwork of local laws that dictate where it can build drilling rigs and other infrastructure, and that a statewide regulation standard is necessary to maximize output from one of the most productive U.S. shale gas fields.

The townships — Cecil, Robinson, South Fayette and Mount Pleasant — are scheduled to receive a combined $986,000 that could be used for projects like road repair, sewer construction or inspection of gas facilities.

But the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission, which administers the impact fee, said it was withholding payment to the townships until it resolved five “requests for review” that were filed by four local landowners and by Range Resources, a Texas drilling company that has been active in Pennsylvania.

Jennifer Kocher, a commission spokeswoman, said the payments were not being held because of the legal case.

“This has nothing to do with the pending court proceedings but rather the proceedings before the PUC where local residents and producers have requested a review of the municipalities’ ordinances,” Kocher wrote in an email.

One of the landowners, Tony Pawlosky, said in a filing with the commission that Mount Pleasant Township should not receive impact fee funds of $511,855 until it brings its zoning ordinance into compliance with the law.