Newtown Township considers fracking ordinance

Timothy Reillyfor the Times

As a new year dawns on Newtown, fresh challenges await the township’s Board of Supervisors. One such test is the potential introduction of the fracking industry into the region.

In January, the Newtown Township Board of Supervisors will consider a preemptive ordinance to allow limited oil and gas exploration. The ordinance was proposed in response to the potential end of two moratoriums that have prevented fracking in Bucks County.

One, issued by the state of Pennsylvania, is set to expire in January 2018.
The other, imposed by the Delaware River Basin Commission, is indefinite. A successful court challenge to the DRBC ban or political changes within the organization could remove the final roadblock to fracking in Bucks County.  

In 2015, the Newtown supervisors voted unanimously for a resolution that requested the moratoriums remain in place.

The ordinance is an attempt to establish boundaries for companies that would seek to perform exploratory drilling in the South Newark Basin, a shale formation below Southeastern Pennsylvania, should the bans be lifted.

Newtown is a member of a three-township jointure, which includes Wrightstown and Upper Makefield. The municipal governments from all three townships must pass the ordinance for it to take effect.

In an emailed statement, Supervisor Ryan Gallagher said: “The current proposed zoning ordinance that relates to fracking should be studied by all the municipalities in the jointure to see whether or not it is the best way to address this issue, and if it’s not we should determine what is.”

Allen Fidler, who chairs Newtown’s Planning Commission, explained the logic behind the proposal in comments to the Board of Supervisors in December. “By zoning a specific area within the jointure where fracking would be permitted and placing various performance standards … the jointure would be creating a very unattractive, probably not profitable, place for this activity.”

Opponents of fracking do not view the ordinance as a prohibitive measure. Rather, they believe the legislation will serve as an open invitation to gas companies.  

“The ordinance they have drafted is very vague and does not contain the provisions that would protect our children and environment from oil and gas development,” offered Tracy Carluccio.

Carluccio is the deputy director of the Delaware Riverkeeper Network. Her organization was involved in the court battle to overturn Act 13, a 2012 Pennsylvania law that limited a municipality’s ability to regulate fracking. Recently, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court struck down portions of the law.

“As a result, municipalities can adopt ordinances to control where fracking can occur,” Carluccio asserted.

Carluccio mentioned the implementation of air dispersal models and rules for retaining ponds and compressors as a few avenues of regulation that are available to local governments.

“Municipal officials have a lot of power,” she noted.

Local environmental activist and fracking expert Betty Tatham suggested another demand that the township could impose on gas companies. “You can demand a bond. The company needs to put up financial collateral for liability.”

Tatham’s concerns extend beyond regulatory measures. “My area of interest is the water and the children who have to drink the water.”

The fracking operation involves the use of hundreds of chemicals, which drilling companies have kept secret. One known chemical used in the process, benzene, is a carcinogen. Fracking opponents worry that the drinking water may be compromised by these fracking fluids or by methane gas that escapes in the process.

However, fracking could create jobs in the region, boosting the local economy. When asked to consider this possibility, activist Richmond Shreve emphasized the importance of the Delaware River to the local economy. For Shreve, the purity of the river must remain a priority.

Shreve, who maintains the No Fracking Bucks website, also mentioned “the negative impact on property values” caused by gas exploration.

“Most people don’t appreciate the scale of a fracking operation,” he said.

As Gallagher and other members of the board consider the merits of the ordinance, he said, “The important thing here is to make sure we put our residents and the local environment first and foremost.”

The board is tentatively slated to consider the ordinance during its Jan. 25 meeting, but it could be pushed back to a later date. ••

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