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Package of Marcellus Shale Bills Still Up in the Air in Harrisburg

The Pennsylvania General Assembly gaveled into session this week after a long summer break, and on the agenda are items related to the use of natural gas from Marcellus Shale.

But the package of bills aimed at expanding use of the resource has some environmental groups concerned.

Marcellus Works is the name given to the package of bills, which mostly create incentives for the increased use of natural gas for vehicle fleets. The bills were introduced by House Republicans last spring. There are nine total, and all were moving forward when the Legislature adjourned for the summer.

“Four of the bills have passed the House; they’re over in the Senate. Three out of four of those bills are tax credits, the other five bills as part of the package have passed their various committees and are awaiting action on the House floor,” said Rep. Eli Evankovich, sponsor of one of the bills.  

The bills would, among other things, provide a tax credit for Pennsylvania companies that transition their vehicle fleets from gasoline or diesel to natural gas, create a revolving loan program for mass transit agencies to purchase natural gas buses and create a natural gas corridor tax credit to encourage the construction of natural gas fueling stations along major travel corridors such as I-80 and I-79. The overall goal of the bills is to strengthen the state’s economy.

“Policymakers in Pennsylvania have embraced natural gas as a cheap, cleaner energy source,” Evankovich said, “and if we can become a hub for manufacturing, if we can become a hub for energy jobs, if we can become a hub for plastics and other synthetics, I think we stand a chance of seeing real growth here in Pennsylvania.”

But some take issue with the claim that the energy is cheap and clean.

“Studies from the National Academy of the Sciences show there would actually be more climate emissions before beginning to produce any benefits,” said Erika Staaf, clean water advocate with PennEnvironment. “The Marcellus Works package helps corporations like Exxon Mobile and Shell and BP that arguably need the financial assistance less than anyone in the commonwealth.”

There are also concerns about what happens when large fleets switch to natural gas vehicles.

“Not only are they subsidizing the use of fracked gas, they’re also building a dependency by paying, with our money, for vehicles that will have to run on this gas for a decade or more,” said John Detweiler, member of the group Marcellus Protest. “So even if the price of gas goes back up to two or three times the price it is now, these transit authorities and fleet owners and family drivers will be a captive market for fracked gas in the future.”

The Marcellus Shale Coalition disagrees with that.

“I don’t think it’s boxing anyone into a corner,” said Steve Forde, the coalition's vice president of policy and communications. “I think right now you could make the argument that consumers are boxed into a corner in the current situation with the way we fuel not only fleets, but consumer, every day vehicles that are used by workers and families across Pennsylvania.”

Still, opponents worry the cost of natural gas will sky rocket as more is developed and exported out of state and possibly out of the country.

Groups like PennEnvironment and Marcellus Protest said they will continue to speak out against tax subsidies for natural gas and other measures. The Marcellus Shale Coalition and lawmakers, meantime, said Marcellus Works will lead to more jobs and an economic boost to the state.

Republican House leadership did not return multiple calls for this report, and it’s unclear where on the priority list Marcellus Works falls for this legislative session.