December 19 borough council meeting. Courtesy of Thaddeus Popavich.

Franklin Park resident and activist Linda Schneider was appalled when she learned late last year of proposed fracking in her community. Like many residents, she feared that the project would be a burden to the community for generations to come.

“We have to live with all the air and water problems,” Schneider tells NEXTpittsburgh. “We, as individuals, will have to pay for all those problems.”

Public officials have a very different point of view: Support for expanding the fracking industry is one of the few areas of bipartisan agreement in Pennsylvania state politics.

Gov. Tom Wolf and County Executive Rich Fitzgerald, both Democrats, have remained in lockstep with the Republican-controlled state legislature’s efforts to bring new drilling sites and pipelines to the state. They’ve cited the immense economic opportunity for smaller, struggling communities.

Support from Harrisburg is so strong, in fact, that laws at the state level make it impossible for municipalities to ban fracking. But municipalities and townships in Allegheny County are increasingly flexing their regulatory muscles and pushing back against the expansion of the industry.

“At the local level, it becomes more intimate, and that’s what counts,” says environmental activist and Franklin Park resident Thaddeus Popovich.

On Jan. 16, the Franklin Park Borough Council voted 4-2 to deny a lease to PennEnergy Resources for drilling rights beneath one of the borough’s public parks. The council is also considering new zoning laws regulating future natural gas projects within the community.

As they stepped up their activism late in 2018, Popovich says they received support and guidance from environmental groups all across the state. The PA branch of Food and Water Watch spread the word via viral marketing, mass text messages to Franklin Park residents, while fellow activists from Beaver County assisted with door-to-door canvassing efforts.

In an email to NEXTpittsburgh, Franklin Park Borough Manager Regis Ebner wrote that the “Borough Council and Mayor received input from residents, industry experts, legal counsel and citizens groups, conducted research on their own and looked at all aspects of the proposed lease before making what each person considered to be the best decision for the Borough as a whole.”

He added, “The zoning amendment being considered will allow the Borough to define where and, to the greatest extent permitted by law, how above-ground oil and gas recovery operations can take place.”

The park in question. Courtesy of Thaddeus Popovich.

The Borough Council will hold a community meeting to discuss the new ordinances on Feb. 19. Schneider, Popovich and their fellow activists plan on attending and pushing for even greater restrictions on the industry.

In the last several years, as the industry makes slow but steady inroads around the Pittsburgh area, several other municipalities in Allegheny County have enacted zoning policies aimed at restricting the natural gas industry.

After being forced by the state to lift their ban on fracking in 2011, the Forest Hills Borough Council enacted some of the strictest regulations on hydraulic fracking in the state, and also adopted a proposal to adhere to the Paris Agreement last year.

In 2017, the Oakmont Borough Council instituted new fees for oil and gas exploration, leading one local oil and gas company to forgo a planned survey of the township.

However, the county is not united in opposition. Plum Township allows drilling on rural and industrial land and is considering a new well while EQT operates several active wells in Elizabeth Township and Indiana Township approved eight wells in the last year.

And of course, the coming Shell ethane cracker plant in nearby Beaver County will likely bring significant downstream extraction industries to Allegheny County.

Still, Popovich and Schneider say that any and all future attempts to expand fracking in Western Pa. will have to contend with a growing and empowered network of activists across the region.

“The people in the community have come out,” says Popovich, “and we have voices.”

Bill O'Toole

Bill O'Toole was a full-time reporter for NEXTpittsburgh until October, 2019. He previously reported in Myanmar.