LOCK HAVEN - The Clinton County commissioners will focus on issues surrounding gas drilling operations and dwindling state funding at next week's County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania conference in Hershey.
Commissioner Adam Coleman said at their meeting Thursday they will try to lobby their fellow commissioners from around the state to have state agencies - most notably the Department of Environmental Protection - loosen restrictions placed on companies looking to drill for natural gas under the large Marcellus Shale region, which includes Clinton County.
Officials reported at Wednesday's Joint Urban Studies seminar in Wilkes-Barre that gas companies are not getting a great deal of cooperation from the different agencies for drilling permits, which can take up to four months to approve, Coleman said. Similar approvals in other states usually takes about 14 days.
"There's a lot of down time that these companies are dealing with right now and they don't want to have to deal with it," he said. "People have made money off their leases, but where the real money is going to be made is when they... start punching holes in the ground. That's when people are going to see all the big jobs coming in."
In addition, Coleman said he believes the state should institute a severance tax, like those enacted in most other states, on the gas coming out of the ground, That tax, he said, would be enforced by the state, but proceeds would be given to the municipalities where the drilling occurs.
Fort Worth, Texas, which has been reaping the benefits of natural gas drilling for a number of years, had a $5.2 billion budgetary surplus, largely because of that tax, Coleman said.
"We're talking major, major money," he said. "We need (DEP) to get out of the way."
DEP officials have said the permitting process takes longer than in other states because it wants to ensure the state's waterways and environment are not adversely affected by the drilling operations.
Coleman said he's also for saving the environment, but DEP needs to look at the associated costs.
"Is it worth keeping a stream 100 percent pristine to block $100 million worth of injection into the local economy?" he asked. "We need to lean on our state agencies as much as we can. I don't want to say they're dropping the ball, but they're keeping things a lot slower than they have to be."
Coleman said he hopes to convene a meeting of a new countywide task force on the issue at the beginning of next year.
Commissioner Tom Bossert drove home the consequences of the alleged lack of cooperation from DEP, reporting a drilling company on Wednesday backed out of a lease agreement for about 500 acres in Bald Eagle Township, costing that landowners' association $1.35 million in potential lease payments.
"That would have been a direct payment to the residents of this area," he said. "It would have gone back into our economy in this county and would have circulated... That's a chunk of money that's lost... If DEP is fouling up, then they should be held accountable.
"DEP needs to recognize they are holding central Pennsylvania and Clinton County residents in a choke-hold," Bossert continued. "We understand their purpose, but... they don't have to slow everything down to a snail's pace... We can do it with environmental concerns met."
Mitzi Gallagher, legislative assistant to state Rep. Mike Hanna, D-Lock Haven, said bills dealing with the drilling issue are set to be acted upon when its session begins in January.
Bruce Jones, site administrator for CareerLink in Lock Haven, said his office has agreed to be the lead liaison between the the Workforce Investment Board of the CareerLink offices in the nine-county region and its industries concerning drilling.
Coleman said the county's main concern with state funding is the lack of money to pay a majority of the DA's salary.
State law enacted a few years ago dictated DAs in most counties would become full-time positions with the state picking up 65 percent of their salaries. However, no county has received reimbursement for the last two years. Clinton's DA salary is set at $156,441 with the state's share of the salary at $101,687.
Coleman said a group of CCAP members are scheduled to hold a news conference at the Capital Building in Harrisburg to demand the money be paid to the counties.