This Week in Pittsburgh History: Pittsburgh Bans Fracking

On December 7th, 2010, the City of Pittsburgh became the first city in the state to ban fracking, denying Marcellus Shale drilling within city limits. The polarizing story is an interesting read. The Pittsburgh Business Times wrote at bizjournal.com:

Pittsburgh passed on Nov. 16, 2010, a “Community Bill of Rights” that made it the first Pennsylvania city to ban natural gas drilling. Despite a Marcellus Shale drilling boom at the time, Pittsburgh’s City Council came out in opposition. Citing environmental and health concerns, the council approved the measure 9-0. The vote, according to a CBS News report at the time, received a standing ovation in Council Chambers.

Responding to industry claims about a potential natural gas job influx, City Council President Darlene Harris was quoted saying the reward wasn’t worth the risk.

“They’re bringing jobs all right,” Harris said, according to that CBS report. “There’s going to be a lot of jobs for funeral homes and hospitals. That’s where the jobs are. Is it worth it?”

Kathryn Klaber was CEO of the Marcellus Shale Coalition at the time. Now, CEO of The Klaber Group, which provides strategic services to shale businesses, Klaber remembered Harris’ comments vividly.

“I saw that quote [from Darlene Harris], and I thought it was the saddest, most defeatist vision I had ever seen. It was unbelievable that this is something that could be heard from local leaders,” Klaber said.

Kevin Moody, vice president and general counsel to the Pennsylvania Independent Oil and Gas Association, said few companies considered drilling within Pittsburgh’s city limits at the time the moratorium was passed. The few instances where drilling within city limits was considered, the public uproar was so significant that natural gas producers got the hint that they weren’t exactly welcome. He cited the media frenzy after it was revealed in August 2010 that the Catholic Cemeteries Association of the Diocese of Pittsburgh leased cemetery land for natural gas drilling.

“No one wanted to touch [Pittsburgh], really,” he said.

After the drilling ban was passed, “it was as though the city put a ‘do not enter’ sign up to keep drillers away,” Klaber said.

The Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund, headquartered in Mercersburg, Pa., is an environmental rights group that wrote Pittsburgh’s drilling ban and handed it off to the city. Passing a ban in Pittsburgh started a wave of similar activism by CELDF not only in Pennsylvania, but also in Ohio and California. CELDF is the group behind the movement in Grant Township, Indiana County, to ban injection wells that would place waste from hydraulic fracturing underground.

“If there’s a lasting effect of the Pittsburgh ban, it’s that it emboldened CELDF,” Moody said. “We’re still trying to stop the ordinances against drilling that followed the Pittsburgh decision.”

Ben Price, projects director at CELDF, said Moody is exactly right about one thing.

“Pittsburgh was a catalyst,” Price said. “We’ve been working with other communities with similar types of local laws. The fracking issue became really big after Pittsburgh passed its ban.”

But there was plenty of reason for that, said Justin Wasser, campaign representative for Keeping Dirty Fuels in the Ground, a Sierra Club project.

“The industry wanted to make Pittsburgh into a guinea pig to see what kind of impacts we would see,” Wasser said. “What Pittsburgh did was bold, and it was courageous.”

But did it also lose the city opportunities?

“The city’s timing for the ban was unfortunate,” Klaber said. “It forfeited the ability to host headquarters for a lot of natural gas companies who might have placed their operations in the city. As a result, the city’s loss has been the gain of a lot of surrounding areas in the region.”

“Our greatest concern has always been safety and welfare,” said Darlene Harris in a conversation with Business Times. “And with gas prices being what they are right now, I don’t think any natural gas companies are looking to headquarter anything. They’re just looking to stay alive.”

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