Companies that want to drill for natural gas in Bucks or Montgomery counties will have to wait.
State lawmakers on Saturday night approved a moratorium on gas drilling in Bucks, MontCo and parts of Lehigh, Berks and Chester counties. The moratorium will affect any oil or gas operations in the South Newark Basin, which underlies a swath of territory extending from Bucks through MontCo and into Berks County.
The moratorium is needed so scientists and engineers can better study the gas deposits held deep below ground, lawmakers said Saturday.
"This legislation makes good on my promise that Act 13 was not intended to apply to Bucks County," State Sen. Chuck McIlhinney, R-10, said in a statement. "My colleagues in Harrisburg never intended for the Marcellus Shale law to affect our region, and now that a newly discovered formation exists, they agree that a moratorium on drilling is appropriate to give us the same time to study and debate the issue for our local area."
McIlhinney worked with Republican state lawmakers from Bucks County, including Sen. Bob Mensch (R-24), Rep. Marguerite Quinn (R-143), Rep. Kathy Watson (R-144) and Rep. Paul Clymer (R-145), to draft the language of the moratorium.
It was passed as an amendment to the state's fiscal code, in SB 1263. (Click here to read the full text of the bill or for more information.)
The state House and Senate approved the budget late Saturday and Gov. Tom Corbett signed it just before midnight, the end of the state's current fiscal year.
A 2011 report from the United States Geologic Survey outlined the results of surveys of five basins along the east coast, from northern New Jersey down to North Carolina. The study was released on June 20, 2012.
One of those basins, the South Newark Basin, underlies much of Bucks and Montgomery counties, according to the report. Geologists estimate that basin contains at least 363 billion cubic feet of undiscovered natural gas deposits, and could contain much more. They estimated the mean amount to be 876 billion cubic feet.
The five basins together hold an estimated mean natural gas resource of 3,860 billion cubic feet, the report concluded.
Confronted with evidence that gas drilling could, indeed, affect Bucks and Montgomery counties, lawmakers scrambled to amend Act 13, the controversial state law regulating drilling in the Marcellus Shale formation.
The technique drilling companies use to fracture the rock formation to release the gas, called fracking, has faced stiff opposition from those worried about the environmental and health affects of the practice.
"The recent report by USGS has shed a new light on the possible circumstances in Bucks and other southeast PA counties. We believe it is necessary, given this new information, that these counties must be given the opportunity to have a greater say about things happening in their own backyard," Mensch said in the joint statement. "Originally Act 13 was viewed as primarily an issue for the northern tier counties. This new information proves otherwise."
But while the moratorium exempts Bucks and the other areas in the South Newark Basin from drilling for now, other parts of the state still must comply with Act 13. Some characterized it as a move by legislators in a wealthy part of the state to protect their backyards, while leaving other Pennsylvanians unprotected.
"Where was our study? Where was our six years?" Democratic Rep. Jesse White was quoted as saying in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette. "What makes Bucks and Montgomery [counties] so special?"
White represents part of Washington County, on the far western Pennsylvania border, an area that hosts "a significant amount of Marcellus Shale drilling," according to the Pittsburgh newspaper.
The moratorium could run as long as six years, John Micek, The Morning Call's state politics reporter in Harrisburg, reported on the blog, Capitol Ideas. The addendum prevents drilling permits from being issued until a state study of the formation is completed, or until 2018, whichever comes first.