Senate Panel Approves Scarnati Gas-Drilling Bill

A broad-ranging bill to regulate natural gas drilling in PA and impose a fee on drillers won a key state Senate committee's support Monday.

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — A broad-ranging bill to regulate natural gas drilling in the state and impose a fee on drillers won a key state Senate committee's support Monday but not the bipartisan backing the high-ranking Republican sponsor had hoped for.

Only one Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Committee crossed party lines to join Republicans in endorsing the proposal from Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati, of Jefferson. The full Senate is expected to debate the bill as early as Tuesday.

Scarnati said his proposal, which was months in the making, would impose a fee of about 3 percent on gas production that is expected to generate tens of millions of dollars a year to help maintain roads and sewer systems in communities affected by the drilling as well as statewide initiatives that finance infrastructure improvement, environmental cleanups and open space.

The bill also would impose new environmental restrictions and designate the attorney general's office as the initial arbiter of local zoning disputes.

Democrats on the committee complained that the tax was puny, the environmental requirements weak and the zoning provision inadequate.

"It just falls short," said Sen. Vincent J. Hughes, of Philadelphia.

Sen. Lawrence M. Farnese, D-Philadelphia, said Pennsylvania has the fourth-largest pocket of shale-imbedded gas in the world and the companies drilling in the lucrative Marcellus Shale region can afford to pay much more to the state.

"These folks aren't going anywhere," he said.

A proposed Democratic amendment to Scarnati's bill was rejected by the committee.

Scarnati, who sits on the committee, said that he was "dismayed" by the lack of Democratic support and that many provisions the minority party wanted were inserted into the latest version of the bill.

"This is a good bill. I believe that this sets a high mark," Scarnati said.

Sen. John N. Wozniak, D-Cambria, who sided with the Republicans, said gas drilling has created a lot of jobs and economic opportunity in his part of the state.

"This is the best deal that we're going to cut right now," he said.

House debate began late Monday on amendments to a separate, Republican-sponsored bill that closely mirrors the approach favored by GOP Gov. Tom Corbett. After a few amendments were considered, the House put consideration of the bill off for more debate in the future, perhaps as early as Tuesday.

Pennsylvania remains the largest gas drilling state without any kind of tax on the activity.

Drilling companies began flocking to Pennsylvania in earnest in 2008 to extract gas from the Marcellus Shale formation, the nation's largest-known natural gas formation. But they are covered largely by 1980s laws that did not envision the deep-drilling activity or the drilling process known as hydraulic fracturing, which uses chemicals and produces millions of gallons of often toxic wastewater.

Critics say hydraulic fracturing, also called fracking, could poison water supplies, but the natural-gas industry says it's been used safely for decades.