Call it an impact fee or call it a tax.
Either way, state Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati's plan would accomplish the same thing -- require companies drilling in the Marcellus Shale to pay the state for the natural gas they remove.
It's about time.
Pennsylvania is the only significant natural gas-producing state that doesn't tax drillers. That might have been understandable before 2005, when the massive store of gas trapped in the formation was largely considered out of reach.
But since then drillers have used new techniques to release the resource, and geologists have sharply raised their estimates of the amount stored in the shale.
That's sparked a drilling frenzy not seen in Pennsylvania since 1859, when an oil well drilled in Titusville, Crawford County, led to the world's first oil boom.
In 2007, there were just 27 wells drilled in the state's Marcellus Shale; last year, 1,386 were drilled. By some estimates, as many as 100,000 new wells could dot our landscape in 10 years.
Now, given the tolls on the environment and infrastructure this new industry is taking -- not to mention the state's $4 billion deficit and proposed massive cuts to education -- it's inexcusable not to tax the companies removing one of our natural resources.
Gov. Tom Corbett is sticking to his campaign pledge of no new taxes, claiming a levy on drillers will send them fleeing from possibly the largest natural gas play in the world. But to where? To another of the Marcellus Shale states that already taxes drilling? Probably not.
The governor has indicated, however, he would support an "impact fee" on drillers, which might explain why Scarnati isn't calling his bill a "tax."
What it would do is assess an annual fee on each well based on natural gas price and the well's production, meaning it's tied to the amount of gas removed and its value.
Scarnati estimates the fee would raise $121.2 million by March 1, 2012, and $675 million over five years, based on current natural gas prices.
The first $7.5 million raised next year would go to county conservation districts, then the money would be split -- 60 percent to counties and municipalities that have drilling and 40 percent to state-run funds.
It sounds promising, although we wonder if this is the best possible legislation, given that lawmakers, if they have any hopes of success, must work around Corbett's self-imposed restrictions.
Call it a tax or call it an impact fee.
We'll call it a start.