Municipalities Gain Authority to Regulate Drilling

Previously, local municipalities could not impose restrictions on gas drilling separate from those required by the state. However, several Pennsylvania court decisions have begun to give local officials additional regulatory authority.

In two previous cases, the courts ruled local officials could set rules over where drilling occurred, but in the most recent case, Penneco Oil Co. Inc. v. the County of Fayette, the court granted power beyond zoning ordinances.

Now municipalities can impose greater restrictions on drilling companies, like requiring well sites be surrounded by fencing and scrubs. Or they can create special exemptions to prohibit drilling.

These rulings have major implications for Pennsylvania drillers. When a drilling company is considering an area, they factor in total costs as primary considerations for selecting a location. Predictability is key — unlike the state DEP, which has a detailed guideline for drilling approval, every municipality in the state can now have different local restrictions, permitting fees, and requirements.

The local regulations are typically more about convenience and aesthetics than safety. The state already thoroughly regulates drilling, ensuring environmental and human health protection. DEP prohibits a well from being within 200 feet of a residence or any structure. And, unlike abandoned wells of the past, all wells in Pennsylvania are registered, holding companies accountable to plug wells after completion and restore vegetation to the well site within nine months after plugging it.

As lawmakers debate a natural gas jobs tax, by the promised deadline of October 1, lawmakers should consider the impacts of another layer of regulation on the costs of drilling in Pennsylvania.