Allegheny County municipalities unprepared from shale drilling rebound

A map of shale gas wells in Western Pennsylvania shows thousands of sites all around Allegheny County and only a relative few within its borders.

Given its sweet spot in the still developing Marcellus Shale gas field, Allegheny County won’t always be the doughnut hole. Sooner or later, as the shale gas industry rebounds from its three-year slump, the county will become a bullseye.

But Doug Shields, a former Pittsburgh councilman and outreach liaison for Food & Water Watch, a national advocacy organization for healthy food and clean water, said many of the county’s municipalities aren’t ready.

Mr. Shields said his review of zoning ordinances in 130 Allegheny County municipalities found 56 with no zoning ordinance specific to oil and gas drilling and development, while another 30 have zoning rules that are outdated because they don’t follow either current state law or recent court decisions, or both.

Of the 56 municipalities without zoning that addresses oil and gas development, 31 already have acreage leased for gas extraction within their borders, according to the Allegheny County Lease Mapping Project developed by FracTracker Alliance, a nonprofit based in Camp Hill that maps and tracks risks related to oil and gas development.

That FracTracker map shows that of Allegheny County’s 467,000 acres, 63,000 acres, or about 13 percent of the county’s area, is leased for oil and gas extraction, and the industry has easements and right-of-ways on another 5 percent of the land. The leased land is located in 85 of the county’s 130 municipalities.

And because of missing county deed information, the amount of land leased or otherwise controlled by oil and gas companies could be as much as 10 percent higher, for a total of 28 percent.

“The problem for elected city and municipal officials is how to appropriately manage that land use,” Mr. Shields said. “They can continue to whistle past the graveyard thinking drilling won’t come here because the county is too built out and densely populated but that’s highly unlikely.”

To help control, direct and channel gas drilling away from residential areas, schools, commercial districts and other densely populated areas where such development can cause public health and safety problems and damage property values, Mr. Shields said, Food & Water Watch will host a half-day workshop on Saturday, June 3.

Local elected officials, municipal solicitors and community leaders are the target audience of the workshop, titled “Fracking in Your Local Community: Your Rights and Municipal Responsibilities,” which will review municipal legal rights and offer assistance in understanding zoning rules and writing or amending zoning ordinances.

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