In a win for environmentalists and municipalities, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court last month struck down a number of provisions to the state’s oil and gas law, Act 13. Keystone Research Center board member Jordan Yeager was the attorney who argued for the towns and environmental groups involved in the challenging the law.
This case addressed several issues left unresolved in the 2013 Supreme Court decision in Robinson v. Commonwealth, the original challenge to far-reaching oil and gas law (Act 13) passed by the legislature in early 2012 that restricted municipalities’ ability to restrict unconventional gas drilling using local zoning regulations. In the December 2013 Robinson decision, the Supreme Court ruled portions of Act 13 unconstitutional, including the one that restricted local zoning rights. At the time the court sent some components of the challenge back to the lower courts, and those issues have been working their way back to the Supreme Court.
In an 88-page opinion written by Supreme Court Justice Todd and joined by Justices Donohue, Dougherty and Wecht, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled:
- Unconstitutional a provision that required doctors who treat patients with ailments that might be associated with exposure to drilling pollution to sign non-disclosure agreements if they wanted information on chemicals drillers are using. The court found the provision unconstitutional because it applied only to the gas industry. The provision caused an uproar in the healthcare community and one doctor filed suit.
- The Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) must notify private water well owners in the event of a nearby spill of gas drilling pollutants. Act 13 required the DEP to notify operators of public water supplies, but the law left out notification to private well owners—about 3 million mostly-rural residents rely on private wells for drinking water, many of them in shale drilling areas. The court ordered the legislature to fix this part of the law, and require notification to private well owners.
- Unconstitutional the use of eminent domain by gas companies to take land for the use of underground natural gas storage facilities. The court said that while some portion of storage may benefit the public, it was primarily beneficial to business interests.
- As originally ruled in the first challenge, the industry no longer has a fast track to commonwealth court when it comes to challenging local zoning ordinances that address gas drilling. And the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission will no longer have any role in examining local zoning decisions.
Jordan said the decision is a big win:
“It’s great,” he said. “And it’s great for the residents of Pennsylvania to have the courts recognize that their rights matter more than the gas industry’s power in Harrisburg.”
Yeager said the court’s 88-page opinion repeatedly stressed the original law had serious flaws.
“It’s a great vindication for citizen’s constitutional rights,” he said. “The court said throughout the opinion, that Act 13 and these provisions were a special law that simply benefited the gas industry.”
Congratulations Jordan and Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court! It’s nice for the public interest to trump the gas industry’s interest for once.
To encourage that simple idea to catch on in state legislatures, this past June KRC/PBPC and their partners in Ohio and West Virginia highlighted policies that would benefit the public interest in nine different Shale policy areas.