HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) - State senators are scrambling to bridge a partisan divide and wrap up months of negotiations on a sweeping bill that would toughen outdated environmental regulations and impose a drilling fee on Pennsylvania's booming natural gas industry, senators said Friday.
If all goes according to plan, the closed-door talks would yield an agreement this weekend on a bill that would run dozens of pages long, if not more than 100, in time to write it and amend it into an underlying bill on Monday. A final Senate vote would follow Tuesday.
"It is a challenging process, but I think we've covered a lot of ground and are really building toward a comprehensive, bipartisan piece of legislation that can garner the necessary votes," said one negotiator, Sen. John Yudichak, D-Luzerne.
Drilling companies began flocking to Pennsylvania in earnest in 2008 to exploit the gas in the Marcellus Shale formation, the nation's largest-known natural gas formation. But the drilling companies were largely working under laws from the 1980s that never envisioned the deep-drilling activity and the high-volume hydraulic fracturing that produces millions of gallons of often toxic wastewater.
So far, the Legislature has done little to update those laws, leaving it largely to the Department of Environmental Protection to make changes by regulation. Meanwhile, Pennsylvania remains the largest gas-drilling state without any kind of tax on the activity, despite efforts by Democrats to press it.
On Friday, Yudichak did not want to reveal details of the emerging legislation or the talks to finalize it. In general, it will seek to toughen clean water-protection laws and penalties for environmental violations, impose an impact fee on the wells and distribute the money from the fee.
If the bill does not pass the Senate next week, it would likely have to wait until senators return to session in Harrisburg during the week of Nov. 14.
It is likely that parts of the developing Senate bill will run into opposition from the House and from Gov. Tom Corbett, a Republican who is viewed as an industry ally.
Yudichak said, for instance, that Democrats and Republicans in the Senate are trying to develop a reasonable impact fee on the industry "that recognizes a statewide impact."
Sen. Edwin Erickson, R- Delaware, who heads the Senate GOP's policy committee, said there is considerable pressure from senators to use some fee revenue statewide for some kind of environmental improvement program and, possibly, for storm-water control efforts in response to the massive flooding that struck eastern Pennsylvania in recent weeks.
Corbett, in a plan he revealed Oct. 3, would leave it up to counties to impose an impact fee, and the money would largely go toward purposes in counties that are home to the drilling.
That has run into resistance from many urban and suburban lawmakers, who want the money to benefit statewide environmental improvement causes.
The impact fee also will have to meet the approval of Corbett, who took a campaign pledge not to increase taxes or fees, and opposes the kind of severance tax imposed by many other natural gas producing states. He also may reject any effort to send fee revenue to statewide causes.
On Friday, Rep. Brian Ellis, R-Butler, circulated a memo among fellow House members seeking co-sponsors for legislation that would mirror Corbett's plan. However, he wrote that his bill would draw on royalty revenue from drilling on public forest land to aid statewide environmental programs, including Growing Greener, the Hazardous Sites Cleanup Program and the Conservation District Program.
Ellis' bill would be among many others already introduced in the House and the Senate.
In March, Corbett empaneled his hand-picked Marcellus Shale Advisory Commission to explore the issues and report on it. The panel, dominated by his appointees and members of the natural gas industry, largely provided the framework for the plan Corbett eventually announced, but his proposal did not go as far as have plans from many urban and suburban lawmakers for generating revenue from Marcellus Shale producers or imposing tougher environmental standards on drilling to protect waterways, reservoirs, wetlands and private water wells.