Pennsylvania appeals court issues mixed ruling on Act 13, state's oil and gas law

Rights of local communities are affirmed

Jul 17, 2014, 15:06 ET from PennFuture

HARRISBURG, Pa., July 17, 2014 /PRNewswire-USNewswire/ -- Today, the Commonwealth Court reinstated local zoning regulation of the oil and gas industry in Pennsylvania. The decision effectively means that local government can regulate where industrial gas operations can occur, such as by prohibiting those land uses in residential areas. Challenges to such laws will again be governed by the Municipalities Planning Code.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court, in the Robinson Township case, previously struck down as unconstitutional, under the Environmental Rights Amendment, the provisions of Act 13 that sought to force local municipalities to accept industrial gas operations in every area of their township and municipality. In issuing this follow-up decision, the Commonwealth Court also prevents enforcement of Sections 3305-3309 of Act 13, which gave the Public Utility Commission and Commonwealth Court jurisdiction to determine whether local ordinances complied with Act 13.

"PennFuture initially opposed the passage of Act 13 because it trampled on the rights of local government to preserve the tranquility of residentially zoned districts and protect public health and the environment," said Cindy Dunn, president and CEO of PennFuture. "The Supreme Court struck down those provisions because they were incompatible with the Commonwealth's duty as trustee of our public natural resources. Further, our neighborhoods should not be turned into industrial zones." This decision affirms that principle by reestablishing the right of municipalities to regulate where gas facilities may be located, and the role of local courts in judging the validity of those regulations.

"While we are disappointed that the court upheld the medical confidentiality provisions of Act 13, it is important to note the court presumed that nothing in Act 13 prevented a doctor from disclosing the chemical content of frack fluids to whomever it was necessary to provide proper patient care," continued Dunn. Similarly, while the Court also upheld the eminent domain provisions of Act 13, the court's decisions was premised on the fact that those powers were only vested in companies that are public utilities that hold a certificate of public convenience from the Public Utility Commission. Finally, the court also ruled that individual well owners are not entitled to notice when a spill occurs. This point outs the need for Act 13 to be amended to protect those citizen rights.

PennFuture is a statewide public interest membership organization founded in 1998 with offices in Harrisburg, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and Wilkes-Barre. The organization's activities include litigating cases before regulatory bodies and in local, state, and federal courts; advocating and advancing legislative action on a state and federal level; public education; and assisting citizens in public advocacy.

Elaine Labalme   

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SOURCE PennFuture