Is fracking coming to Bucks County?

If a Western Pennsylvania drilling company has its way, it soon could be.

The company, Turm Oil, submitted an application last week to drill for natural gas in the Lockatong Shale under Nockamixon Township The drilling site would be located on Beaver Run Road, about four miles from the Delaware River near the intersection of Routes 611 and 412 — the former site of Cabot Chemical Company.

Maya van Rossum is the leader of the Delaware Riverkeeper Network — a Bristol-based nonprofit which advocates for the health of the river and its watershed. She says that this development is a direct result of legislation passed in Harrisburg last week.

That law imposes impact fees on companies wanting to drill for natural gas in Pennsylvania and restricts the zoning authority of local municipalities who accept the windfalls of those fees.

In short, municipalities can either take the money or keep their zoning power but not both.

According to van Rossum, this is ultimately a major win for the drilling companies. She sees the Nockamixon case as prime evidence.

"It looks like the drillers are just piling on now," she said. "They see an opportunity to do what they want, where they want, because the municipalities have been stripped of their legal authorities. So they're just trying to ride into town as quickly as possible in order to get their drills into the ground."

Turm Oil did not return a call for comment, but company CEO Deke Forbes emailed that he was "very much looking forward to a responsible and successful development in Bucks County."

Turm is one of the 17 founding members of the Marcellus Shale Coalition. According to its website, it has been "exploring the Marcellus Shale in Susquehanna County since December of 2007" — having drilled nine wells in that time.

Van Rossum and her group cite the harmful effects of natural gas drilling including land degradation from construction and traffic, as well as the corruption of underground drinking water aquifers. She says these factors trump any of the positive aspects supporters of drilling typically point to — increased job opportunities and reduced dependence on foreign energy sources.

"There are other alternative sources of energy that do not require us to decimate our environment, to decimate our drinking water supply," van Rossum said. "There are no other sources of water that exist on this earth other than what's in our aquifers and what flows through our rivers and streams."

The Delaware River provides drinking water to roughly 15 million residents of New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Delaware.

Obstacles await

Despite van Rossum's fears, there's still much in the way of Turm's drill and the Lockatong's natural gas reserve.

Although the new law includes language that could potentially restrict a municipality's zoning power, those restrictions are not automatic, and such decisions are likely to be at the center of contention and litigation.

The new law also requires greater supervision and regulation of the industry.

And there is an even greater obstacle to proposed drilling in Bucks County. Based on the location of the proposed drilling site, Turm Oil can't extract gas until it gets permission from the Delaware River Basin Commission.

At least for the foreseeable future, that's unlikely. The DRBC has an open-ended moratorium in place for all drilling within the Delaware watershed.

Even in the face of these hurdles though, many remain leery of H.B. 1950's potential. For Nockamixon Township Planning Commission Chair Bill Sadow, this has to do with history.

In 2007, Michigan-based Arbor Resources filed an application to drill — but backed out of the project in 2010 after litigation with the township.

Sadow says Arbor's departure from the county was a victory for his board — but not necessarily because they were against drilling.

The main contention was that Arbor didn't want to adhere to local noise, light and sanitation ordinances.

With Turm Oil's application, Sadow says, again, he's not categorically opposed to the drilling. But he joins those who fear that recent legislation could potentially give drilling companies too much power — including the power to override those very ordinances for which his township fought for years to retain control.

Sadow echoed the sentiments of many of those still grappling with the week-old legislation: "We're treading on new ground now."