After almost two years of work by the Westmoreland Planning Commission to restrict gas and oil drilling in Westmoreland County, the proposed new regulations have come before the Board of Supervisors. The board will review the proposed regulations and hold public hearings before voting on the matter.
Throughout the last two years Westmoreland Planning Commission, in response to resident concerns over fracking, has worked to create regulations to restrict drilling for oil and gas. The restrictions apply to all drilling but focus on restricting practices unique to fracking as well.
Two of the major restrictions would increase the proximity of drilling from water sources such as wells and would restrict companies from leaving behind chemicals used in the process of drilling.
Fracking, is a form of gas extraction using downward and sideways drilling. Fracking uses sand, water and a mixture of chemicals to fracture porous rock, causing the gas to be released. Once the horizontal drilling reaches the desired area of rock, the fracking fluid is pumped into the rock using high powered pumps, causing the rocks to fracture. Sand, trapped in the fractures, keeps them open.
An average of 8 million liters of water, the equivalent of a daily consumption of around 65,000 people, is used for each drilling. The process also uses several thousand tons of sand and approximately 200,000 liters of hazardous chemicals. Companies who use this procedure routinely dispose of these chemicals by injecting deep underground near the drilling site.
Many residents who are against fracking have urged the commission to “just say no” by implementing a moratorium on fracking or banning it altogether. However the commission believes that if oil and gas companies challenge a ban in court they may win.
Without underlying laws in place that allow drilling with a number of restrictions a ruling by the court in favor of fracking would leave Westmoreland County powerless to protect citizens from negative impacts on their environment.
Planning Commission Chairman John Felt maintains, “Our intent is to have strong regulatory regulations in place in this county to render it more challenging to perform fracking economically.”
The proposed zoning amendments would require gas and oil companies wishing to drill in Westmoreland County to seek rezoning and obtain a special exception permit in order to extract fuel by any method, including fracking.
Companies wishing to drill must hold an informational meeting for the public prior to applying to the county, notifying nearby property owners within 1000 feet of any property boundary line of the property to be drilled.
The application must list what resources are on the property such as historical, archeological, threatened or endangered species, wetland, wildlife habitat, air quality, surface and ground water quality and quantity, prime agricultural land, marine and any other resources that may be on the land.
The Comprehensive Plan shows areas that are potentially appropriate for extraction/drilling, the area to be rezoned for drilling must be in those areas and must be a minimum of 40 acres of land to minimize surrounding impacts and follow setback requirements.
The special exception permit offers additional environmental protections. For example a site closure plan must outline how the disturbed area of the site will be restored, the cost of restoration and a bond must be obtained to ensure clean up is paid for.
The ordinances if passed will require protection of water through required setbacks between gas and oil well drilling operation and designated resource protection areas, wetlands, existing structures, public and private wellheads and other public infrastructure.
The commission has left the minimum setbacks in the draft ordinance in a range from 500 to 3,300 feet but will advise the Board of Supervisors to raise the minimum setback to at least 1000 feet. Because this is required in the application for special exception permits, the governing bodies will determine the the minimums in each case. The Commission wants to ensure that the minimum setback is adequate to protect theses resources.
In addition performance standards shall be met addressing noise, vibration, odor, glare, electrical interference, screening and height restrictions. Utility and access requirements will also be laid out and approved in the special exception permit.
The Commission has sent an option 2 to the Board of Supervisors in response to citizens requests to just ban fracking all together. However they still maintain that a complete ban on fracking without underlying restrictive ordinances would leave Westmoreland County vulnerable to a court battle which may result in the judge overturning the ban all together.
Linda Farneth is a Westmoreland News reporter.