Marcellus Playbook: Zone, Baby, Zone!

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As is known to sometimes occur, this blog having espoused a position less reflexively liberal than completely, local officials have begun shouting, “Quick! Through the dimensional portal! While there’s still time!”

And so last week, a City councilman proposed zoning regulations on “mineral extraction” which would could replace the city’s current outright ban on drilling, and the County executive sent out Requests for Proposals to natural gas companies to drill on County airport land.

We kid, of course. These initiatives have been in the hopper for some time. Let’s examine them separately.


Intended to replace current language in the City Code pertaining to “the horse you rode in on,” Councilman Patrick Dowd’s “due process” proposal to regulate fracking in the City as presently written would:

  1. Require that drillers submit a “Master Plan,”
  2. Mandate an area of at least 40 acres of land (i.e. over 30 football fields),
  3. Require a hearing at the Planning Commission before it makes a recommendation to City Council, and a City Council hearing prior to its final vote to approve or deny,
  4. Mandate that these panels deny an application in the cases of discovering any adverse visual impacts, transportation impacts, operational impacts, health and safety impacts or property value impacts,
  5. Require water and soil testing before and after fracking,
  6. Require that operations control for lighting, dust, vibration, odors and other annoying effects.

The energy and business communities have made it well-known that they truly do not appreciate hearing words like “ban” or “moratorium” being bandied about — either due to the implied offense and effrontery, or the publicity it creates that such conditions might indeed be possible.

The proposed legislation would narrowly succeed in relieving that source of industry annoyance.

Mr. Dowd criticized Mr. Ravenstahl for opposing the ban without proposing health-and-safety safeguards for residents. “His only position is a simple-minded position,” Mr. Dowd said.

Mayoral spokeswoman Joanna Doven said Mr. Ravenstahl broached the subject of safeguards in 2010. At the time, she said, council had no appetite for anything except a ban.

“If you want to talk about simple-minded, I think the ban was the most simple-minded thing that’s occurred in council’s recent history,” Ms. Doven said. (P-G, Joe Smydo)

Is that your final answer, Joanna? You may want that one back.

So it looks like Councilman Dowd’s legislation would for all intents and purposes keep the urban core of Pittsburgh footloose and fracking-free through different means. It would however get us out of the business of “activism” and overt defiance — and perhaps, get its public servants back into rooms with energy executives and other economic development enthusiasts for the discussing of other matters of mutual interest.

Afro-Squad, Snow

However. It may not be that simple.

The zoning mechanism used for this “due process” is what is technically called a Conditional Use exception — a recommendation at the City Planning Commission followed by a vote at City Council.

The last occasions on which Conditional Use exceptions have been in the news, quite frankly, both involved Adult Entertainment uses.

I know. Sorry.

Aside from any tasteless metaphors you may wish to draw regarding towering drill rigs, patient pumping and gushers, the two land uses involve A) activity which is consistently and outrageously politically unpopular near anyone’s own backyard but B) enormously lucrative and sought-after by many, even as a matter of pride and principle, which as a Conditional Use would be C) permitted by our Code with extensive qualifications yet understood as a practical matter to be challenging to allow, so long as we trust the system to hold and our leaders to operate as expected.

We find two archetypes for outfoxing Conditional Use approval in Adult Entertainment.  On the North Side, extraordinarily well-financed interests made ligitous claims that our regulations were subjective and unconstitutional, and wrangled a settlement. On the West End meanwhile, public officials inexplicably wound up stammering, pointing fingers at each other, and referencing a deleted e-mail in the City Clerk’s office as their excuse to have failed to execute the maneuvers a Conditional Use application requires.

So the natural gas industry should take heart. Pittsburgh’s new zoning proposal may entail some real, meaningful liberalization.

PUBLIC NOTICE: Of course, this may all be academic and quaintly quixotic. If you wish to extract minerals from the ground to which you possess ownership rights, you don’t go to Grant Street in Downtown (lol) Pittsburgh to ask permission. You google the Pennsylvania DEP, that is the Department of Economic Promotion Environmental Protection, and submit an online application. They should get back to you within weeks. Of course that may change on October 13 or thereafter, meaning we would then need sustainable, practical local ordinances; it’s a fluid situation. Go and read one radio host’s take, in which Pittsburgh’s “The horse you rode in on” ban was actually characterized as the reason the State “responded” with Act 13’s “The remnants of Old Republic have been swept away” preemption of localities.

And then there is County Executive Rich Fitzgerald’s drilling play. Thanks for hanging in there with us.
Sure wasn’t expecting him to move this quickly. I suppose safety and suitability studies have already been conducted on both the Airport lands, owing to last time. But here are maps of Pittsburgh International Airport and Allegheny County Airport; where are the safest and most suitable spots precisely? Northwest of Imperial-Enlow? East of Prospect Park?
Have to admit, two things I like about the idea of airports are, not many people around, and plenty of truck access to most spots already.
But are we really going to just let just any old drilling company in? Not all Marcellus Shale operators are created equal; we might be better off focusing our inquiries on relatively superlative companies like Consol Gas and Cnx Gas, than say, recidivist violators like Cabot Oil & Gas or XTO Energy.
How are we evaluating the bids? I hope dollar signs are just one consideration.

4 thoughts on “Marcellus Playbook: Zone, Baby, Zone!

  1. Bram Reichbaum

    “Shale” –

    Mmmm. But I think it's supposed to be the new “Plan A”. I think most of them want out of the ban business.

    But you know, *either* way, out into the future when the noxious portions of Act 13 are dead and buried, this bill could evolve into a grand *model* for how municipalities will have to zone to balance important mineral rights with other important rights. I don't know if you can sell that, but there's prestige. Or at least pride.

    At any rate, *until* those portions of Act 13 are finally dead and buried, the heads fully separated, we don't need zoning imo. The city, because of its sheer human and topographical density, until Act 13 is gone, the city NEEDS a ban — and precisely the kind of ban we have. “Bite me, jags.”

  2. Serge

    Once you've decided to lease your mineral rights, you should carefully read the terms and conditions and if possible, ask a copy of this fine print so that you'll have a resource of your own later on.


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