Leetsdale planning commission proposes updated oil and gas ordinance

Friday, February 7, 2020 | 12:01 AM

Last month, Edgeworth council voted to approve an ordinance regulating natural gas resources development. In neighboring Leetsdale, the planning commission has drafted its own conditional use ordinance that would govern the approval process for any unconventional gas well or fracking operation.

Leetsdale currently has a conditional use oil and gas ordinance that does not account for unconventional hydraulic fracturing, according to an executive summary on the draft oil and gas ordinance, which the planning commission has recommended to council. The draft ordinance reflects new research on appropriate setback distances and confines drilling to industrial-zoned areas as per state law.

The summary also stated that demand for ethane extraction will increase with the completion of the Shell ethane cracker plant in Beaver County and that sections of Leetsdale property are leased for the oil and gas industry.

Council has discussed the ordinance, which is also being reviewed by the borough’s solicitor, according to Dominic Napolitano, who sits on the Leetsdale planning commission. The measure appears to be largely preemptive, and Napolitano said he has no knowledge of any plans to bring a fracking operation to Leetsdale.

Preemptively designating an activity like fracking as a conditional use ensures that any proposal would come up for a public hearing.

“In the end, this is meant to protect the health and safety of residents,” said Napolitano.

Because oil and gas activity is regulated by the state, municipalities cannot ban the practice and must allow for the activity to occur somewhere within their borders. But local governments have the ability to restrict fracking to certain zoning districts and place conditions on the activity.

Municipalities can use zoning to place fracking operations with other compatible land uses. Under Leetsdale’s proposed ordinance, any fracking operation would have to take place in the Leetsdale Industrial Park, Napolitano said.

Some municipalities that have passed oil and gas ordinances, such as Edgeworth and Leet Township, do not have industrial areas. These municipalities have used a combination of setbacks and other conditions in their ordinances ‒ including noise and vibration requirements ‒ to limit any potential disturbances for residents.

The setback distances in Leetsdale’s draft ordinance range from 1,500-1,900 feet, Napolitano confirmed in an email. The current state minimum for unconventional gas wells, established by the Pennsylvania Oil and Gas Act of 2012, is 500 feet.

Given the industrial park’s proximity to the river, the proposed ordinance contains requirements for water quality monitoring, Napolitano said.

The executive summary recognized the need for an evacuation plan and to account for different land uses like compressor stations and processing plants.

“There’s a requirement for evacuation plans. The industrial site only has one exit. It’s very important for us to ensure that we have evacuation plans there,” Napolitano said.

Napolitano added that he expects council to vote on the ordinance this year but could not confirm an exact date. Council President Wesley James did not return a message requesting comment.