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Environment & Energy

Proposed Oil And Gas Registry Aims For Transparency, But Could Be Hard To Enforce

In this June 25, 2012 file photo, a crew works on a gas drilling rig at a well site for shale based natural gas in Butler County. There were 141 operating wells in Allegheny County as of May 2, 2018, according to an Allegheny County Council bill.

A long-delayed proposal to create a public registry of oil and gas leases in Allegheny County still faces hurdles after county councilors met to discuss it Tuesday. The bill would require landholders to report where they lease property for fracking and oil drilling.

County Councilor Anita Prizio introduced the legislation last September. At a meeting of council’s Government Reform Committee, Prizio said the registry would provide information municipalities need to plan for development.

“To be clear,” the Democrat said, “the primary reason for a registry is to support Allegheny County’s 130 municipal governments so [that] they may appropriately develop and revise their state-mandated comprehensive zoning plans, and also improve their zoning ordinances.”

“Public safety agencies can also use this information to appropriately plan for the impact of drilling and fracking,” she continued.

But Andy Szefi, the county’s top lawyer, said the registry would likely prompt legal challenges from gas and oil companies.

“The argument’s going to be you’re attempting to regulate an industry in violation of [Pennsylvania’s oil and gas law], Act 13, and you’re going outside the purview [of that law] by making us disclose proprietary information,” he said.

Szefi said the state does not require oil and gas leases to be recorded with county real estate offices. But he said companies often document the agreements with brief summaries, called memoranda of the lease. In that case, Szefi said, the state requires the memos to include nine details, including the names of the property holder and lessee, a description of the property, and the lease term.

Prizio’s proposal, meanwhile, would require far more information, such as the type of drilling or fracking that would take place at a site.

“There are a number of items [in the bill] that aren’t on that list” of state-required information, Szefi said, “and that frankly aren’t public information.”

Prizio said she intends to introduce a new version of the legislation that would require only the information already included in lease memos. Unlike the original proposal, Prizio added, that version would put the burden of reporting on oil and gas companies, not property owners.

“All that would be required,” Prizio said, “is for leaseholders to fill out an online form and provide essential information that is already in the public domain.”

Regardless, Szefi said, it would be difficult to ensure that all lessees report where they have oil and gas rights.

So, he said, “The question arises: Who didn’t register? And how are you going to find that out?”

Under the bill, the county would impose a $75 fine on known violators for each lease that is not registered, and a $150 fine for each subsequent violation.

Officials at Tuesday’s meeting said it would take decades and cost millions to account for oil and gas leases that aren’t reported.

Previously, lease details, including street addresses and parcel numbers, were easily accessible on the county website. But that ended in 2010, Prizio said, when the county’s Department of Real Estate exempted oil and gas leases from a deed certification initiative.

Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald, who has long been a supporter of the gas industry, could veto the proposed registry if it council were to approve it. But county spokeswoman Amie Downs said he has not taken a position on the bill.

“As with most pieces of legislation,” Downs wrote in an email, “he will wait until council has done its own due diligence and would review/consider the bill when it comes to his desk.”

Councilors have until the end of the year to vote on the measure.

At Tuesday’s meeting, governance committee chair Nick Futules said the committee will hear from former Pittsburgh City Councilor Doug Shields, a longtime foe of natural gas drilling and a supporter of the registry, in two weeks.