Casey pushing natural gas jobs

By:  Gary Weckselblatt

Sen. Bob Casey introduced legislation Wednesday that he contends will help the burgeoning natural gas industry add more jobs.

Through the STATE Natural Gas Act, the Pennsylvania Democrat would create a grant program to offer states funding to develop initiatives that encourage the use of natural gas and encourage public and private investment in natural gas vehicles and transportation infrastructure.

“Despite the industry’s growth in recent years, natural gas is still a largely untapped resource,” Casey said in a telephone call with reporters. “So I’m working to give states the resources and flexibility to develop this plentiful domestic energy source and create jobs and economic opportunity in Pennsylvania.”

He said his proposal, which stands for Supporting Transportation Alternatives to Tackle Emissions with Natural Gas Act, would “build a base for increased job creation and energy independence.”

Under the plan, states would apply for grants through the Department of Energy and would be awarded based on several criteria, including enticing the private sector to invest in natural gas projects such as transportation and infrastructure.

“Promotion of natural gas can be done most effectively and efficiently at the state level,” Casey said. “Washington can provide a helping hand.”

State lawmakers have pushed similar proposals for Marcellus Shale, a massive reserve of natural gas that sits thousands of feet below much of northern and western Pennsylvania, but not in Bucks and Montgomery counties.

State Rep. Kathy Watson, R-144, has sponsored legislation to offer incentives, including tax credits, to local and regional transportation authorities for conversion of their vehicles to natural gas.

State Rep. Todd Stephens, R-151, recently met with school district and municipal officials about the benefits of using natural gas to fuel their vehicles.

“By converting fleets to natural gas, our school districts and municipalities can save money and help the environment,” Stephens said. “Since Pennsylvania is now one of the nation’s leading producers of clean-burning natural gas, we can also help create jobs right here rather than relying on foreign oil.”

Stephens said in 1995, the Lower Merion School District converted 58 buses to natural gas to address environmental and noise pollution issues. Today, it pays just 75 cents per gallon for fuel.

Casey has also introduced legislation to speed the transition of natural gas fueled vehicles by creating a rebate for the purchase of natural gas buses and extending tax credits for natural gas filling stations.

He said less than one-tenth of 1 percent of vehicles built by the “Big Three automakers” run on natural gas. “So we have to focus on strategies to create more jobs and speed the use of natural gas incentives that work best for a state’s particular situation.”

“Pennsylvania is well positioned to play a leading role in the natural gas industry,” he said. “This will help reduce dependence on foreign oil and create jobs right here, right now.”

Casey has also introduced legislation — the FRAC Act — to increase disclosure and safeguards of chemicals that could enter the drinking water supply.

Asked if his new measure undermines the environmental concerns, Casey said “they are all entirely consistent. Both are critically important priorities. ... We can’t slow down when we have the challenges that we have ahead of us.”

Natural gas drilling in Pennsylvania has not been without controversy.

The state’s Act 13 law imposes impact fees on drillers and established environmental controls, but opponents of the law claim it takes away local zoning oversight of the drillers.

Nockamixon and Yardley have challenged Act 13 in court and at least 67 Pennsylvania municipalities have voted to send a letter in support of the lawsuit aimed at overturning the law.

In Bucks County, municipalities that have signed the resolution include Bridgeton, Chalfont, Doylestown, Doylestown Township, Falls, Morrisville, Penndel, Riegelsville, Tinicum and Tullytown.

In Montgomery County, East Greenville and Upper Moreland have signed the resolution.

While Marcellus Shale is not in the local area, a recent U.S. Geological Survey by scientists rated the South Newark Basin — which is located below most of Bucks and Montgomery counties — the third-highest untapped natural gas resource on the East Coast.

Roughly 300 property owners have signed gas leases in Nockamixon, but there has been no drilling in the region in recent history. Recently state lawmakers, led by Sen. Chuck McIlhinney, R-10, attached a provision to the fiscal code of the state budget that essentially bans gas drilling in this region for the next several years.