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Proposed Gas-Drilling Ban, Environmental-Rights Question Set for State College Ballot

on August 30, 2011 8:10 AM

The Centre County Board of Elections has made it official:

State College voters will decide Nov. 8 on a proposed borough-charter amendment -- an amendment that would ban commercial gas drilling and establish environmental rights within borough limits.

Elections-board members voted 3-0 Friday to include the referendum item as part of the borough's general-election ballot. Earlier this summer, just more than 1,000 borough residents signed a petition to qualify the proposal for placement as a referendum item.

"It's up to the residents of State College to decide if they want this," elections-board member John Saylor said in a brief meeting Friday.

Groundswell PA, a political-action group founded by 2011 Penn State graduate Braden Crooks, led the petition drive.

While no gas-drilling proposals are imminent in the borough, Crooks has said, State College does sit atop the gas-rich Utica Shale, thought to be next in line for exploration after the Marcellus Shale. He has underscored that gas drillers had attempted to extract gas from beneath the City of Pittsburgh -- before that city banned commercial gas extraction last year.

About a half-dozen other communities statewide have implemented similar bans, though they have done so via orders rendered by elected officials, Crooks has said. He believes the State College referendum will mark the first time -- anywhere -- that people will have a popular vote on environmental rights, he said.

He called the referendum effort a proactive measure done in solidarity with other communities. Advocates plan a variety of awareness-raising and educational efforts between now and Nov. 8, to rally public support, Crooks said. He has emphasized that the campaign hinges heavily on ideals of local governance and local control. (State College Mayor Elizabeth Goreham and some Borough Council members have already aired support for the initiative.)

Drafted with assistance from the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund, the borough-charter amendment would not only address gas drilling, but also assert that all borough residents have a right to clean water, a right to clean air and a right to sustainable energy.

In addition, the amendment would underscore the community's right to self-governance and give rights to ecosystems -- including the rights to clean water and air. It would ban any "non-sustainable energy production" in the borough, as well.

Also Friday, the county elections board formalized for Ferguson Township a separate Nov. 8 referendum item. In that matter, voters will decide whether to change the minimum-age requirement -- now set at 21 years -- for township supervisors. The proposal on the ballot would allow any resident who has lived in -- and been registered to vote in -- Ferguson Township for at least one year to serve as a supervisor. That would set the de facto minimum age at 19.

The issue came up after the May primary, when Elliott Killian, 19, won enough write-in votes to win a nomination for the Ward III seat on the Board of Supervisors. If voters agree to reduce the minimum-age requirement, and if Killian wins ample votes, on Nov. 8, he will be seated as a township supervisor in January.

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