Thou shalt not drill

A week ago, county Judge Marc F. Lovecchio overturned Fairfield Township supervisors’ approval for Inflection Energy LLC’s conditional use of a property on Quaker State Road for an oil and gas well pad.

Brian Gorsline, Dawn Gorsline, Paul Batkowski and Michelle Batkowski appealed the supervisors’ December decision, citing that it was a violation of the township zoning ordinances for its residential-agricultural district.

The objecting party argued that well pad activities conflicted with the purpose of the zoning district, which is to encourage development of a quiet, rural residential environment. They asserted that uses permitted in the residential-agricultural district do not involve use of industrial machinery and chemicals, result in heavy truck traffic, cause loud noises at all hours of the day, impose threats to residents’ health and safety or have a negative impact on the environment.

The Marcellus Shale well pad was to be as large as 300 feet by 350 feet and located within 3,000 feet of a large residential development.

In court documents, Lovecchio wrote that Fairfield Township approved the case on a general basis but didn’t force Inflection Energy to provide specifics relating to its work.

As a result, much of the testimony provided by Inflection Energy during the two public hearing dates in October and November was inconsistent and “fraught with uncertainties.”

Inflection was unable to state how many wells would be drilled, how much water would be needed, what type of energy would be used on site (solar or electric), how long the site would be under construction or if after they drilled through the shale, they would drill through other layers of earth. The company could not state what properties wells would be going under and could not confirm if water would be supplied by pipeline or trucked into the site.

During the hearings, Inflection senior field operations manager Tom Irwin stated he believed that the proposed use of the Quaker State Road property would further the purpose of the residential agricultural district but failed to proved any factual support or evidence of that claim.

Lovecchio wrote, however, that many facts presented through the hearing showed that Inflection’s activity would be in conflict with the district’s goals of promoting rural living.

Irwin testified that between 1,400 and 1,800 trucks would be coming to the site, just to transport gravel. That number does not take into account the trucks that would be used to transport 2 million gallons of water to the site or the 206 truck trips to bring in the drilling rig.

The judge remarked that the traffic, light and noise associated with the site would disrupt the pastoral setting of the residential district. While in more commercial or industrial areas, the well site’s hours and method of operation wouldn’t be an issue, in a residential neighborhood, it presents a bigger problem, disturbing residents in 125 nearby homes.

The lack of support for the well site and the evidence presented by the opposing group led Lovecchio to reverse the supervisors’ original decision. The recent state Supreme Court decision to overturn parts of the state’s oil and gas industry law, Act 13, also came into play for Lovecchio’s ruling.

“While the court understands the constraints that the board may have been operating under as a result of Act 13 and the litigation regarding its constitutionality, our Supreme Court has now ruled with respect to such, the citizens’ rights cannot be ignored and must be protected,” Lovecchio wrote.

“Neither the applicant (Inflection Energy) nor the board explained how unconventional natural gas operations are compatible with the permitted uses in this district. Furthermore, the board’s findings were not supported by substantial evidence and, in some instances, were clearly in contravention of the evidence.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.