Planners Play Catch-Up in Marcellus Shale Leasing Rush

Article excerpt

Interest in drilling the Marcellus shale rock formation has oil and gas companies quickly buying up leases across Allegheny County - - and communities scrambling to keep up, officials said yesterday.

Drillers have access to 2,600 pieces of land in the county, mostly from leases signed between January 2009 and May, according to research released by the University of Pittsburgh.

"You just see this massive run-up in activity," said Bob Gradeck, research project manager for the Pittsburgh Neighborhood and Community Information System, Pitt's online database of statistical maps. "What it says to us here is, 'We've got to do some planning.' ... This is happening really fast, and there's a lot of money there."

Community officials said they are aware of the increasing interest from drillers, and they are working on rules to limit how and where companies can operate. Pittsburgh City Councilman Doug Shields plans to call today for a total ban on drilling -- a policy that could set up a legal fight with gas companies, which have 362 acres under lease in the city.

A lot of public debate has focused on Pittsburgh, but just 1 percent of the city's land area is under lease, compared with 7 percent of the county overall. Companies leased large tracts in communities such as West Deer, Findlay and Fawn. In Fawn, which is 13 square miles, 41 percent of the land is under contract.

"It seems to have come upon us very quickly," said Plum Mayor Richard Hrivnak. "There's certainly a lot of money to be made, and if it can be done safely with minimal impact to the environment, that's OK. But we want to make sure this is a safe undertaking, and we don't want to destroy our natural resources in the process."

A lot of work has to be done from the time that property is leased to when the company has enough acres to seek a permit and drill a well, said Kathryn Klaber, executive director of the Marcellus Shale Coalition, an industry trade group.

"There's certainly time for plenty of additional community dialogue," she said.

Plum officials are looking at creating local ordinances and studying local roads to see whether they can handle heavy drilling equipment. …