The Somerset County Commission has voted to enact an impact fee on Marcellus drilling operations, though at this point, they're not sure how much money that will mean for the county. At a meeting Tuesday Commissioners John Vatavuk and Joe Betta approved the fee. Commissioner Pamela Tokar-Ickes was absent from the meeting, though Betta said she does support the move.
"It's a resource that needs to be tapped and any way that we can reduce cost and lower taxes if possible, who knows?" said Commissioner Betta. "Where there's money and where there's resources, why not use them?"
Under Act 13 the state Public Utility Commission will collect the fees directly from drillers and, using a specific formula, the money will be distributed. The law lays out specific guidelines for how municipalities and counties can use the money they receive from the fees. Betta said he's not sure at this point whether the fee will be beneficial for the county, or whether it will be a liability.
"People I read about in other states and people I talk to — Bradford County in particular, and other counties in Pennsylvania — it isn't all a bed of roses. There's some collateral damage that occurs, the extent to which nobody's real sure exactly what it's going to be yet. But I understand in Bradford County the roads are taking a beating, for sure," he said.
Betta added that he hopes gas drillers will step up and help communities if something goes wrong with their wells, or something happens to area water supplies or other resources. So far there are about 11 well sites in Somerset County. Betta said he's optimistic that all will go smoothly, and would just like to have some assurance that if something does go wrong, the county isn't left with the bill.
"But who knows what might happen when you're drilling that deep and you're forcing that gas out of the well and the collateral damage as far as water systems are concerned?" said Betta.
Counties that have shale gas wells have until mid-April to enact a fee or choose not to collect. If the county officials refuse the fee, municipalities have 60 days to override the decision.
Meantime, a state judge is ordering a temporary halt to portions of Pennsylvania's new Marcellus Shale law that limit the power of municipalities to regulate the booming natural gas exploration industry.
Commonwealth Court Senior Judge Keith Quigley issued a 120-day injunction Wednesday after hearing arguments earlier in the day.
The eight-week-old law's local-zoning provisions were scheduled to take effect Saturday.
A group that includes seven municipalities sought the injunction in the short-term to give them time to argue their lawsuit that the law unconstitutionally takes away local powers that protect them from potential harm.
Senior Deputy Attorney General Howard Hopkirk argued that the state created the municipal planning code, and municipalities have no right or standing to complain about perceived harm to its residents if the state pre-empts parts of it.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.