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Out of the Comfort Zone: A wary response for proposed gas-drilling rules 

"Nothing [in the bill] at this time says, ‘We're putting this in place of the ban'"

When Patrick Dowd offered new legislation to govern natural-gas drilling in the Marcellus Shale at a Sept. 20 press conference, he stood alone. There were no drilling-company representatives behind him, no environmentalists anywhere. And that, if nothing else, suggests how fractious the debate over gas "fracking" has become.

City officials, Dowd told reporters, "have an obligation ... to ensure the health and safety of our citizens." But they also have a duty "to guarantee that our citizens benefit both from the jobs and wealth" created by the industry. Accordingly, he was proposing a four-bill legislative package to balance those interests.

Among other things, the legislation requires a "master planning" process in which the full impact of drilling — the location of wells and related infrastructure, truck and emergency-vehicle access — would be addressed, with community input. The legislation would require the planning zone to cover at least 40 acres, a complicated task in a densely built urban area. 

But the city code already features an outright ban on drilling, passed in 2010. Isn't establishing zoning regulations now like teaching abstinence in sex-ed ... and then telling students how to use birth control?

Such ambiguity worries environmentalists. "We're just going with the ban," says Peter Wray, who chairs the Allegheny Group of the Sierra Club's state chapter. "Once you start saying, ‘We need some regulation of this activity,' it's almost like admitting the activity is OK." 

Critics say no drill site is 100 percent safe. Drilling for shale gas involves digging mile-deep shafts, and then "hydrofracturing" by injecting water and other chemicals that break up the rock and release natural gas. Environmentalists worry that those chemicals, and methane gas, can migrate into nearby water supplies. 

Under questioning by reporters, Dowd repeatedly denied that his bill necessarily spelled the end of the ban. "Nothing [in the bill] at this time says, ‘We're putting this in place of the ban,'" Dowd said. If that sounds a bit equivocal to you, you're not alone: "Pittsburgh council may vote to permit some drilling in the city," one energy-industry publication reported. 

Still, Dowd hasn't exactly embraced drilling supporters either. 

Mayor Luke Ravenstahl has long opposed the drilling ban, in favor of a more restrained approach. And mayoral spokeswoman Joanna Doven says, "We're glad to see Mr. Dowd finally getting on the same page we've been on all this time."

But Dowd went out of his way to blast Ravenstahl's own position on drilling as "simple-minded" and "corrosive," prompting Doven to respond that the most simple-minded position was in supporting the ban. 

Currently, the closest thing Dowd has to a supporter is ... Doug Shields, the former city councilor who authored the ban in the first place. 

"Zoning isn't going to protect anyone" from environmental impacts, Shields says. But because there has been no drilling in city limits, Shields says, "For a lot of people, extraction is an abstraction." Focusing attention on where drilling might be allowed, Shields says, "puts the matter on the table in a real sense."

Couldn't zoning regulations weaken the ban's rationale? Shields shrugs. "The ban has always been at risk," he says.

Dowd's zoning regulations might be at risk too. On Oct. 17, the state Supreme Court will be in Pittsburgh to hear arguments over Act 13, the state law which governs gas-drilling. Act 13 strips much of the zoning authority municipalities would otherwise have over drillers. While a lower court has rejected those provisions, industry groups have appealed: The Marcellus Shale Coalition, for one, says such uniformity is necessary "to provide certainty and predictability" to the industry. (Unsurprisingly, the coalition has called Dowd's zoning bill "short-sighted.") 

Dowd is unfazed: "This is exactly the time for us to assert our rights," he says — as another kind of statement about local self-determination. Ironically, though, while zoning regulations are being argued in court, the city's outright ban has never been challenged. 

"Everyone said we'd be sued," Shields says. But the ban, he says, "has been the Rock of Gibraltar."

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