By Attorney Dale A. Tice, Marshall, Parker & Associates
In an earlier post on this blog I had expressed confidence that the Pennsylvania legislature would enact a Marcellus drilling impact fee. Although the legislative negotiations have taken longer than I had anticipated, the Pennsylvania House and Senate have now passed House Bill 1950 and the bill was signed by Governor Tom Corbett last week. The legislation imposes an annual impact fee on each natural gas well drilled into an unconventional formation such as the Marcellus or Utica shale, and also significantly updates the existing Oil and Gas Law.
Reaction to the bill that was passed has been mixed. Some organizations with an environmental agenda have labeled the legislation a gift to the oil and gas industry. Other commentators have suggested that the new fee structure, coupled with current low natural gas prices, will drive oil and gas development elsewhere. Aside from the actual impact fee, perhaps the most controversial aspect of the new law is a limitation on the ability of local municipalities to regulate drilling activity and enact zoning ordinances.
An interesting twist added by the legislature is tying the revenue that will be generated to the current price of natural gas. For instance, if the price of natural gas averages less than $2.25, the impact fee will be $40,000 for the first year of the well. On the other hand, if the annual average price of natural gas is $6.00 or more, the first year impact fee will be $60,000. With the recent rock-bottom prices for natural gas, it seems likely that the revenue from the impact fee will be on the lower end of the scale. Sixty percent of the revenues will be distributed to counties and municipalities where wells are located, with the remainder going to the state.
One of the more divisive issues regarding the legislation was who would have the authority to levy the fee. The final version of the legislation requires that the fee be adopted by individual counties, rather than the state government. If a county should choose to not enact the fee, an affirmative vote by fifty percent of the municipalities in the county will override the decision. The legislators’ efforts notwithstanding, Grover Norquist still calls the fee a tax.
Viewed from the perspective of the local landowner, some of the more important provisions in the new legislation are as follows:
The previous regulations require that oil and gas wells be located at a minimum distance of 200 feet from an existing building or water source. Section 3215 of H.B. 1950 increases the minimum setback to 500 feet for an unconventional well, unless the owner of the property consents to a reduced distance. Unconventional wells must also be located at least 300 feet from any spring or other body of water.
H.B. 1950 does, however, provide an exception to the minimum distance requirement when the owner of the building or water well does not give consent and the distance restriction would deprive the owner of the oil and gas underneath the property of the right to share in production. A similar exception appeared in the previous version of the Oil and Gas Law, which provided that a well operator may be granted a variance from the distance requirement upon submission of a plan with additional measures to protect the property. But while the previous regulation states that the well operator may be granted a variance, H.B. 1950 provides that the operator shall be granted a variance. Time will tell whether the change from the permissive “may” to the mandatory “shall” will prove to be significant.
As anyone who even casually scans the news is aware, there have been ongoing concerns about the potential impact on water supplies from Marcellus drilling. Pennsylvania has provided an important protection for landowners with a presumption that a well operator is responsible for water pollution if the water well is within one thousand feet of drilling and the pollution occurred within six months of the completion of operations.
H.B. 1950 significantly adds to this protection by extending the presumption to water wells within 2,500 feet of unconventional drilling operations and increasing the period in which the presumption applies from six months to one year.
In an effort to allay concerns about hydraulic fracturing some operators in the oil and gas industry have moved to voluntarily disclose the contents of fracking fluids. H.B. 1950 now requires that a well operator disclose the identity of the chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing on a public chemical disclosure registry. This legislative mandate that the industry disclose the details of fracturing fluids is one of the provisions in the new law that has received the most positive media attention.
But the legislature has also provided the industry with an exception to the rule requiring disclosure if “the specific identity of a chemical or the concentration of a chemical, or both, are a trade secret or confidential proprietary information.” In that case, the operator need only disclose the chemical family or similar description associated with the chemical.
It may be hoped that the oil and gas operators in Pennsylvania will see the public relations benefit from transparency in hydraulic fracturing operations and will not take advantage of the exception to the disclosure rule generously provided to the industry by the Pennsylvania legislature.
Local Municipal Regulation
As discussed above, the restriction on the ability of local municipalities to enact zoning ordinances that regulate where oil and gas drilling activities may occur is probably the most controversial aspect of H.B. 1950. The bill explicitly preempts all local ordinances regulating oil and gas operations and requires that all such ordinances allow for reasonable development of oil and gas resources.
The oil and gas industry has consistently argued that it needs uniformity in terms of regulation across the state; adapting to a patchwork of varying regulations from different municipalities would significantly add to the cost of operations and may drive the industry to shift development to areas with lower operating costs. Governor Corbett and the legislature clearly take this concern seriously and the result is that Section 3304 of H.B. 1950 requires that local ordinances allow oil and gas activities, other than activities at impoundment areas, compressor stations and processing plants, as a permitted use in all zoning districts.
Section 3304 also provides that a municipality may not impose requirements or limitations on oil and gas operations that are more restrictive than those placed on other industrial activities.
The final version of this legislation appoints the state Public Utility Commission as the arbiter of disputes between local governments and operators as to whether an ordinance violates the requirements of Section 3304.
The bill appears to be designed to discourage such disputes. Section 3307 provides that a court can award attorney fees and costs if it finds that a municipality enacted an ordinance with willful disregard for the requirements in H.B. 1950. The municipality will also be ineligible to receive funds collected under the impact fee until it amends or repeals the ordinance.
Pennsylvania has been considering some form of a severance tax or impact fee since the Marcellus boom began. H.B. 1950 is the product of extensive negotiations and reflects a compromise between the various competing interests. Though the legislation leaves room for improvement, in the opinion of this Commentator it is nevertheless a significant step in the right direction.