City Council bans shale drilling in Pittsburgh

By John Manganero

City Council voted 9-0 yesterday to ban Marcellus Shale gas drilling within Pittsburgh city… City Council voted 9-0 yesterday to ban Marcellus Shale gas drilling within Pittsburgh city limits. The decision makes Pittsburgh the first municipality in the state to stop corporations from extracting energy resources buried miles beneath its streets.

Council and community members who supported the ban pointed to health dangers associated with the controversial fracking practices used to extract natural gas from the shale. Critics of the ban said it will divert money and jobs from the city.

In a news release following the vote, councilman Doug Shields said the new ordinance “recognizes and secures expanded civil rights for the people of Pittsburgh, and it prohibits activities which would violate those rights.”

“[The ban] protects the authority of the people of Pittsburgh … by undoing corporate privileges that place the rights of the people of Pittsburgh at the mercy of gas corporations,” Shields said.

The ordinance was drafted by the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund — a nonprofit, public interest law firm providing free legal services to communities facing threats to their local environments — at the invitation of councilman Bill Peduto and was first introduced by councilman Doug Shields.

Shields represents District 5, which includes part of Squirrel Hill, Point Breeze and neighboring areas. In an interview following the vote, Shields said he does not expect any gas companies in Pennsylvania to take legal action against the ban — even though they might have standing to do so.

“From what we’ve seen so far, the tone of the industry is, ‘Let the sleeping dog lie,’” Shields said. “They may have some legal ground to make claims, but the political consequences of that would be too great. They don’t want to make any martyrs.”

For their part, officials from the Marcellus Shale Coalition, an organization that represents Pennsylvania gas drilling companies, said they do not anticipate any legal battles in Pittsburgh over the ban.

“I don’t anticipate the MSC or any of its members challenging this ban; there are many municipalities across the Marcellus region that welcome the economic and environmental benefits made possible by responsible shale gas development,” Kathryn Klaber, president of the Marcellus Shale Coalition, said in an e-mail.

Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl could not immediately be reached for comment yesterday, but he has spoken out in the past against a ban on drilling, citing the potential economic gains drilling could bring to the city. Still, the mayor is expected to sign the bill into law late next week.

“He can’t really veto when council goes nine to zero,” Shields said.

For months before the vote, anti-drilling activists have blamed fracking for explosions, the contamination of drinking water, rivers and streams, and even for decreasing property values of homes near drilling sites.

Under the ordinance, private corporations that seek to drill in the city will not be afforded “personhood” rights under the U.S. or Pennsylvania Constitution, “nor will they be afforded protections under the Commerce Clause or Contracts Clause under the federal or state constitution,” according to the release.

Shields said gas companies own or are leasing 1,500 acres of land within city limits.

“With this vote we are asserting the right of the city to make critical decisions to protect our health, safety and welfare,” Shields said. “We are not a colony of the state and will not sit quietly by as our city gets drilled.”

Currently, state law permits companies to extract natural gas by means of the fracking process. A 2004 study by the Environmental Protection Agency found the process to be safe, but the agency is currently conducting additional investigations into the mining technique.

Shortly following the final vote, Klaber issued a critical statement, bashing City Council for “attacking” individual property rights.

“The vote represents a blow to the city’s weak financial standing, and at the same time is a straightforward attack on individual property rights,” she said. “At a time when the natural gas industry is generating jobs and prosperity for tens of thousands of Pennsylvanians and economic development across the Commonwealth, it’s unfortunate that the council continues to maintain a shortsighted view regarding responsible shale gas development.”