Sunday, April 20, 2014
Inquirer Daily News

Court voids key parts of Pa. gas drilling law

Provisions that supersede local zoning and environmental laws were ruled "null and void" by Commonwealth Court.

Court voids key parts of Pa. gas drilling law

Major provisions of Pennsylvania’s controversial law governing oil and natural-gas drilling were ruled unconstitutional Thursday, returning control to local officials. 

Provisions of Act 13 that supersede local zoning and environmental laws were declared “unconstitutional, null and void” in the ruling written by Commonwealth Court President Judge Dan Pellegrini.  

Seven municipalities, including Yardley Borough and Nockamixon Township in Bucks County, challenged the law that took effect in April. Two elected officials, a doctor, the Delaware Riverkeeper Network and that group’s leader also were plaintiffs in the suit.   

“The court has recognized that the Pennsylvania legislature and Gov. Corbett went too far,” said Jordan Yeager, the lawyer for the two towns and the environmental group. “This is a great victory for the people of Pennsylvania, for local democracy, for property rights, for our public health, and for the clean water supplies on which we all depend.”

Act 13 was enacted to collect impact fees from drilling companies tapping the vast gas supplies in the Marcellus Shale region. Pennsylvania had been the only major gas-producing state that did not tax natural gas production, and it was projected to collect $175 million this year.

Though Act 13 was designed for tapping the Marcellus Shale reserves, which lie beneath two-thirds of the state, the law governs drilling throughout Pennsylvania.

The law allowed drilling within 500 feet of buildings and water wells; within 300 feet of springs, rivers, and wetlands larger than an acre; and within 1,000 feet of sources of public drinking water. Compressor stations could operate in agricultural and industrial districts, and processing plants were allowed in industrial zones.

That was an improvement from the previous law, supporters of Act 13 said.

But it required towns to allow drilling in all zoning districts, opponents said. And it required towns to amend their zoning laws within 120 days to comply with Act 13 or lose any impact fees.

The court also ruled that law “unconstitutionally delegates power to the state  Department of Environmental Protection without any definitive standards or authorizing language.”

The court rejected eight of the petition’s 12 issues, and ruled that the Delaware Riverkeeper Network and the three individuals did not have standing in the case.

Officials from the state Public Utility Commission and the state attorney general's office, which defended the law, would say only that they were reviewing the ruling. A lawyer for Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati, R-Jefferson, who helped write the law, said he expects the decision to be appealed to the state Supreme Court.

Marcellus Shale Coalition President Kathryn Z. Klaber said in a written statement: “The premise for the General Assembly's action earlier this year was to provide certainty and predictability that encourages investment and job creation across the Commonwealth. Lack of uniformity has long been an Achilles’ heel for Pennsylvania and must be resolved if the Commonwealth is to remain a leader in responsible American natural gas development and reap the associated economic, environmental and national security benefits.”

State Rep Tim Briggs, D-Montgomery, who supported the suit, said in a written statement, “Environmentally, this new law seems almost designed to repeat the devastation left by the coal barons 100 years ago. It essentially placed the environmental health of the entire state into the hands of industrial gas drillers.”

He added, “I am happy the court ruled the way it did today and look forward to having its opinion upheld as I and like-minded lawmakers continue to strive for a fair and sensible natural gas drilling policy for the state.”

Earlier this year in New York State, courts twice ruled in favor of towns that have limited industrial gas development through local zoning, said Deborah Goldberg, managing attorney for the non-profit environmental law firm Earthjustice.

“For the third time this year, state courts have recognized that local municipalities have rights that must be respected when industrial activities are proposed for their communities,” Goldberg said in a written statement. “This is terrific news, not only for the people of Pennsylvania, but for communities across the country trying to defend their way of life from destructive gas development. Today’s ruling gives encouragement – and firm legal backing -- to Pennsylvania communities daring to stand up to the oil and gas industry with local zoning laws.”

***

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

About this blog
Chris Palmer covers Bucks County for the Philadelphia Inquirer. His previous work has appeared in the New York Times and on several Times blogs, including City Room, the Local East Village and SchoolBook (which has since been taken over by WNYC). Contact him at cpalmer@phillynews.com, 610 313 8212 or on Twitter, @cs_palmer.

Ben Finley covers Bucks County for The Philadelphia Inquirer. He previously worked for The Associated Press, FactCheck.org and the Bucks County Courier Times, where he won more than a dozen journalism awards from organizations including the Education Writers Association, the Society for Features Journalism and the Pennsylvania Bar Association. He grew up in Columbus, Ohio and graduated with honors from The Ohio State University with a degree in journalism. Contact him at bfinley@phillynews.com, 610-313-8118 or on Twitter, @Ben_Finley.

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