New Energy Duties:

It makes sense for the PUC to deal with drilling

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
14 February 2012

There's a lot wrong with the new state law regulating the Marcellus Shale gas drilling industry, but lawmakers got one thing right: putting oversight in the hands of Pennsylvania's Public Utility Commission.

Since 1937, this regulatory body has been charged with balancing the needs of consumers and state utilities with the goals of reliable service and reasonable rates. Its jurisdiction includes electricity, natural gas, telecommunications, water and truck and rail safety. It seems logical to add the growing deep-well drilling activities to the PUC's purview.

Under the law passed last week, the PUC will be responsible for keeping track of the number of wells, making sure they meet regulatory standards, collecting the fees associated with their operation and deciding when municipal ordinances don't comply with state standards.

The most controversial task on that list will be determining which local rules are consistent with state regulation. Although we think the law goes too far -- we'd rather see local officials retain authority to make zoning-like decisions regarding wells, such as where they can be situated, how far they must be from homes, schools or businesses -- the PUC seems suited to this responsibility. The agency has legal expertise, with a staff of administrative law judges who handle disputes. However, it will need to add expertise in municipal law to its resume.

Its five members are appointed by the governor and confirmed by the Senate, meaning the governor's office usually controls the majority. However, because members have staggered, five-year terms, there is no wholesale change in membership when a new governor takes office. The PUC is not known as a highly partisan body.

As to the collection of well fees, however, we think that work is misplaced in the PUC. The Revenue Department is suited to this duty and already performs it in many regards. Creating a separate bureaucracy at the PUC for collecting what are akin to taxes is unnecessary duplication.