With Republicans taking control of the governorship and both chambers of the General Assembly, opponents of natural gas drilling in Pennsylvania are concerned about potential violations of property rights by drilling companies.
In an attempt to upstage the celebrations going on inside the state Capitol on swearing-in day, critics gathered on the front steps to oppose the threat of forced natural gas pooling laws, which they claim will be on the agenda in the new legislative session.
If forced pooling – or conservation pooling as it is also know – were to be legalized by the General Assembly, it would allow natural gas companies to access gas beneath properties even if property owners refused to allow drilling, provided a majority of neighboring property owners agreed.
The hold-out property owner would be compensated for the gas taken from their land, but would not be able to prevent the gas from being extracted.
Gene Stilp, a local political activist who organized Tuesday’s protest, said the legalization of forced pooling would be a violation of constitutionally guaranteed property rights.
“Sure, they’ll give you something for it, some kind of monetary compensation, but the idea here is that it is a diminution of our constitutional rights to property,” said Mr. Stilp. “It lays open the property rights of all Pennsylvanians.”
Mr. Stilp equated forced pooling to “subterranean eminent domain.”
Drilling companies claim the pooling of resources would reduce surface disruptions from gas drilling because horizontal drilling beneath the surface could tap into gas reserves beneath many properties from a single drilling pad. Without pooling, multiple drilling pads would be necessary to access gas in areas where some property owners refuse to lease their land.
Matt Pitzarella, spokesperson for Range Resources, one of the largest gas companies operating in Pennsylvania, said the pooling can benefit property owners by allowing for more efficient extraction of gas.
“The reason why we want it is for the sake of consistency, so we can maximize the amount of gas that we can drain, which means more money for the people who own the property and leased it to us,” said Mr. Pitzarella. “We can plan farther in advance with the wells we will need to drill and the pipelines we will need to lay.”
Mr. Pitzarella disagreed with the notion that the gas industry was pushing for the legislature to pass a pooling bill early in 2011.
Steve Miskin, spokesperson for House Republicans, said the forced pooling bill was only one of many issues relating to natural gas drilling which lawmakers will address in the coming months.
“Priority number one for us is working with the Senate and governor-elect Corbett to pass a balanced budget without new taxes,” said Steve Miskin, spokesperson for House Republicans. “I think it’s a little too early to be talking about this bill or that bill being a priority.”
Mr. Stilp said the only evidence needed to show Republicans would pass a forced pooling law was to examine campaign contributions.
According to Mr. Stilp, Mr. Corbett received more than $1.2 million in contributions from natural gas drilling companies during his successful campaign for governor.
“The gas industry didn’t give him $1.2 million for it not to come up,” said Mr. Stilp. He said Mr. Corbett was “already bought and sold.”
Calls to Mr. Corbett’s office for comment were not returned.
According to Common Cause Pennsylvania, a citizens’ advocacy group which tracked contributions from natural gas companies to political candidates during the campaign, Mr. Corbett received $835,000 from the industry, a lower figure than Mr. Stilp claimed.
Other high ranking Republicans, including Senate President Joseph Scarnati (R-Jefferson), Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi (R-Chester) and House Majority Leader Mike Turzai (R-Allegheny) received at least $25,000 each from the industry, according to Common Cause Pennsylvania.
Another protest is scheduled for Jan. 17, the day of Mr. Corbett’s inauguration. The rally will be held at the fountain behind the East Wing of the Capitol.