Pa. drilling opponents rally as tax talks drag on

Associated Press
Sandra Nevius attends the Gas Drilling protest rally in the rotunda of the Pennsylvania Capitol Tuesday, Sept. 21, 2010 in Harrisburg, Pa. Various anti-gas drilling groups turned out to voice their environmental concerns with drilling in the Marcellus Shale gas fields. (AP Photo/Bradley C Bower)

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Sandra Nevius attends the Gas Drilling protest rally in the rotunda of the Pennsylvania Capitol Tuesday, …

Opponents of drilling into the Marcellus Shale natural gas reserve brought their message to the Capitol on Tuesday as lawmakers worked behind closed doors on a compromise bill to tax the methane drawn from the lucrative rock formation beneath Pennsylvania.

Speakers at a rally in the Rotunda included the maker of the documentary "Gasland" that was critical of the gas industry and a woman who claims nearby drilling poisoned her northeastern Pennsylvania well water.

"Gasland" maker Josh Fox said the industry is causing terror across Pennsylvania — a reference to the recent revelation that Pennsylvania's homeland security bulletins listed gatherings of drilling opponents — by polluting the land and water of people living near drilling sites.

"The stories are adding up and they can't hide much longer," Fox said, backed by people holding signs supportive of a drilling ban.

Various proposals to halt drilling are going nowhere in the state Legislature, and drilling companies have contested a number of accusations against them concerning pollution.

Legislative leaders met Tuesday morning to discuss a wide range of issues that are being pressed in the brief fall legislative session scheduled to wrap up in mid-October.

Both the House and Senate were in session Tuesday, but largely inactive while drilling opponents and environmental and industry lobbyists circulated through Capitol offices.

Thus far, Pennsylvania's politically divided General Assembly remains unable to agree on a tax, as well as other pieces of legislation affecting drilling.

Pennsylvania is the nation's largest natural gas producing state without a tax on the gas extracted from its bedrock.

Gov. Ed Rendell first proposed a tax on the growing Marcellus Shale gas industry last year. His proposal is equivalent to West Virginia's tax — 5 percent on the sale value, plus 4.7 cents per thousand cubic feet of gas. Such a tax is projected to raise $280 million in 2011, the Rendell administration said.

House Democrats say they are still working on the details of a bill they intend to advance, next week at the earliest. Constitutionally, revenue-raising bills must start in the House, but lawmakers expect any bill that passes the Democratic-controlled House would set a tax higher than is acceptable to Republican leaders of the Senate.

Senate Republican leaders say any Marcellus Shale tax bill that passes the chamber must be packaged with a wide-ranging overhaul of the state's oil and gas law, including provisions sought by the drilling industry. Those provisions include limitations on municipal zoning that affects drilling and new rules for a provision called pooling that could be used to force holdout landowners, under certain conditions, to lease their below-ground gas rights.

"Our view is that it should all be done together," said Erik Arneson, a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, R-Delaware.

A number of senators, including a couple Republicans, have already said they oppose the pooling or zoning ideas, and House Democrats want a tax bill to run cleanly, without any other provisions attached.

"The extraction tax is top priority for Pennsylvania taxpayers and the priorities of the taxpayers have to take precedence over the priorities of the industry," said Brett Marcy, a spokesman for House Majority Leader Todd Eachus, D-Luzerne.

Time is ticking. Rendell leaves office in January, and if the Legislature doesn't pass a tax in the coming weeks, it may never do so.

The Republican Party's gubernatorial nominee, state Attorney General Tom Corbett, opposes any new tax on natural-gas extraction. Democratic nominee Dan Onorato, Allegheny County's elected chief executive, supports a tax, but he trails in polls.

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