"Pittsburgh sends natural gas ban to mayor" - article in Politico

By Talia Buford
8/1/11 5:55 PM EDT

The second-largest city in Marcellus Shale-rich Pennsylvania is taking a harder line against natural gas drilling.

The Pittsburgh City Council voted 6-3 on Monday to place a referendum on the November ballot that would forbid natural gas extraction within the city limits.

The measure still has to go to Mayor Luke Ravenstahl for his approval before the proposal can go before voters, Deputy City Clerk Mary Beth Doheny said.

Even if the mayor rejects it, Monday’s outcome indicates that supporters of the ban have enough votes to override his veto — unless they run out of time.

The city council already approved an ordinance banning drilling last year, but voters’ approval would cement the prohibition in the city’s charter and make it harder to repeal.

“By putting it into a referendum, that ensures there will be rigorous debate,” said council member Douglas Shields, who sponsored the ordinance and proposed referendum. “If the public votes on this, it becomes very difficult for the elected leadership and corporate types to say, ‘You don’t know what you’re talking about.’”

After the vote, the American Petroleum Institute called the proposed charter change “the wrong direction” for economic development in Pennsylvania.

“The Marcellus Shale represents an opportunity for cleaner energy to fuel America and for new jobs in Pennsylvania,” said Rolf Hanson, API’s Pennsylvania executive director, in a news release. “While this decision is largely symbolic, it doesn’t inspire confidence in the ability of our policymakers to help Pennsylvanians find good-paying jobs or develop clean sources of energy to meet growing demand.”

Shields said he fully expects the mayor to veto the measure, but is confident the council will retain the six votes necessary to override the veto.

His only real concern, he said Monday in an interview with POLITICO, is time: The city must submit charter amendments to the Allegheny County Board of Elections by Aug. 9, said David Voye, manager of balloting and returns for the board.

Normally, the mayor would have 10 days to make a decision, but the council is asking Ravenstahl to act by Aug. 8.

“Now we’re facing a time constraint between the 8th and 9th,” Shields said. “The mayor can render this moot by doing nothing. But that’s not what we elect people to do.”

Calls to Ravenstahl’s office for comment were not immediately returned Monday afternoon.

If the proposal is placed on the ballot, and passes, it would insert language into the Pittsburgh Bill of Rights, which guarantees the rights to water, natural resources, sustainable energy and self-government. The language would make it unlawful for any new gas wells to be drilled within the city, and would mean the city doesn’t have to recognize state permits or licenses for drilling issued to gas companies. It would also strip natural gas companies of any rights to challenge the ban as incorporated by the city charter.

Still, if a company challenges the amendment or the ban, state law will supersede the local rules, said Daniel Regan, a solicitor in the city legal department. The department provided the same opinion to the council before Monday’s vote.

“Generally speaking, the [state] Oil and Gas Act regulates drilling, and any ordinance or enactment that is inconsistent with it would be preempted,” he said. The only exceptions that Pennsylvania courts have made involved general zoning and land use restrictions that would apply to the oil and gas industry, but don’t single out the industry itself.