The failure last week by Harrisburg lawmakers and Gov. Corbett to reach agreement on even a modest impact fee for the burgeoning natural-gas industry tapping the rich Marcellus Shale fields will have far-reaching, negative consequences for Pennsylvania.
By booting the issue into the forthcoming election year, Republican state Senate and House leaders now run the risk that nothing will get done — despite their best hopes of having a legislative conference committee hash out a compromise measure.
That's the worst-case scenario, where the state will continue to stand by while drillers enjoy an unprecedented tax holiday. Dating from lawmakers' rejection of former Gov. Ed Rendell's proposal to enact a 5 percent gas-extraction fee, drillers have had a free ride here that no other major gas-producing state offers.
Even the industry realizes the absurdity of the status quo, having long ago relented and come out in favor of a levy, albeit modest, on their operations.
Yet, unless the legislature moves quickly in the new year, the issue could be sidetracked by preelection jitters among lawmakers who, like Corbett, subscribe to rigid and unworkable no-new-tax ideologies. Meanwhile, the entire state suffers, and its environment is at risk.
Without a gas-extraction fee that, by rights, should be adding millions to state coffers, there will be less aid for two-dozen counties where the boom has meant crumbling pavements, congestion, and rising housing costs, among other ills.
Statewide, a fair drilling fee should be helping to support services that benefit all Pennsylvanians — first and foremost, assuring that conservation and environmental cleanup efforts survive and grow. That's particularly crucial now, because Corbett's budget proposals threaten to leave programs such as the successful Growing Greener initiative with a fraction of the funding available over its 12-year span.
While Corbett just announced a bevy of good conservation initiatives for this region, the $31.5 million for the projects came from funding already in the pipeline. The future for conservation efforts will be grim without an influx of new money, and a drillers' fee makes the most sense to acquire it.
That per-well drilling fee — if and when Corbett and lawmakers ever nail it down — should be on a par with other drilling states. So far, though, both the House and Senate have floated rates that would be among the nation's lowest, despite the vast gas reserves beneath the state. Why?
Apart from getting the fee right, it's just as important that Harrisburg do no harm. Yet, misguided rules also under discussion would strip local communities of much their current control over drillers that should be regulated just like in any other industry.