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PUC: Neutral on Shale Drilling

As part of Pennsylvania's new Marcellus Shale drilling laws, the state Public Utility Commission will soon assume new regulatory duties. Members of the state Public Utility Commission said they won't be advocating for or against impact fees in any of the counties that host natural gas wells. But in some cases, they may have to come down on one side of the issue or the other.

Drilling companies could appeal a local impact fee by going to the Commonwealth Court. PUC chairman Robert Powelson said he doesn't think that's any different than what public utilities do today. "They go to the Commonwealth Court on an appeal basis. We'd have to represent our position and defend it, and we tend to win," said Powelson.

Another PUC commissioner said that's not unusual: the agency has administrative judges on staff to decide such disputes.

"We're not going to be advocates out there. To use a football analogy, we're going to let the play come to us. The tools are there. They're optional," said Powelson. "If it's a local municipality has a question, about 'We're looking to implement the model ordinance, can you advise us?' I believe our law bureau can provide that advisory role."

Pennsylvania Senator Wayne Fontana (D- Allegheny County) is worried about the consequences for counties and towns because the PUC is new to the drilling scene. "I mean, land use isn't something you've been doing. It's something new to you. So, are we going to have communities suffering or losing fees or whatever because of that?"

Powelson insists the PUC will "not dictate" terms, and will allow municipalities and counties to come to them with concerns.

The word comes as local governments have just begun grappling with whether or not to impose the newly minted natural gas drilling impact fee. Counties have the next two months to decide whether to levy a fee.