Local supervisor ‘ecstatic’ about ruling

December 19, 2013
This Range Resources natural gas well at the O’Donnell Pad on Buffalo Road North in Hopewell Township is one of many Marcellus Shale wells in Washington County. - Observer-Reporter Order a Print

Defeated at the polls because of his stance on a spectrum of Marcellus Shale issues, Robinson Township Supervisor Brian Coppola said Thursday he feels vindicated as he serves out the waning days of his term because he was among those who prevailed before the state Supreme Court in their challenge of Act 13.

“I wouldn’t do anything different,” Coppola said Thursday afternoon after concluding a plane trip. “There are other supervisors in other communities who felt the same way about it.”

Although the names of officials from Robinson, Cecil and Peters townships were front and center on the caption of the case, Coppola stressed, “It wasn’t just a few municipalities involved. We could’ve just as easily had 3,000. The Pennsylvania State Association of Township Supervisors covers 90 percent of the land area in Pennsylvania. It was a mis-characterization to say it was just a few.

“Commonwealth Court already ruled it unconstitutional,” Coppola said. “I think this puts a period on it. It was an enormous overreach by the government and the gas industry.”

Washington County and its municipalities received millions of dollars worth of Marcellus Shale impact fees under Act 13, but, according to Coppola, opponents of the law never challenged those provisions. “The impact fee is not affected as far as I know,” he said.

Coppola, Cecil Supervisor Andrew Schrader and Peters Township Councilman David Ball all said that the lead attorney in their case, John M. Smith and his staff took the case pro bono, or without payment. Smith, solicitor for the three municipalities, issued a brief statement Thursday afternoon.

“We believe the Supreme Court authored a well-reasoned opinion. Whenever the Constitutional rights of the citizens are protected, it’s a win for everyone in the Commonwealth. A debt of gratitude is owed to all municipalities and individuals who fought so hard to ensure that their rights and the rights of Pennsylvania citizens were not cast aside in favor of corporate interests,” Smith wrote via email.

Ball said, “Obviously, we’re ecstatic. It’s a real victory for the people of Pennsylvania. That’s what the lawsuit set out to do – uphold our constitutional rights. The Supreme Court even reversed some of what we lost in the Commonwealth Court.

“There is plenty of opportunity for gas companies to continue to drill. This does not impede the companies’ ability to make money and extract gas. They just can’t trample on the rights of other people. They have to deal with townships and planning commissions and so forth. Every other company that operates in the state has to do the same thing.

“The legislature needs to go back and look at some other issues like pad density so you don’t end up with multiple pads from multiple companies in an area, and pipeline issues.”

The municipalities’ objective was to protect the property values of their residents, according to a Cecil supervisor.

“I’m glad we won because it gives us a chance to protect the people a little bit,” Schrader said. “Act 13 would’ve put these wells in every part of your township. They’ll still be able to drill.”

Schrader said Act 13 allowed gas wells to be sunk 500 feet from a residence and ponds for water used in hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” to be dug 300 feet from a house.

“There’s no reason to put them that close to buildings,” Schrader said. “Horizontal wells can be bored 8,000 to 9,000 feet. They can go 1 1/2 miles in each direction, so you’re talking three miles.”

Smith and other attorneys were able to get an injunction just days before Act 13 was to take effect, putting the law on hold until courts could review it.

Without the injunction, municipalities “would have been forced to approve thousands of wells across the state within 30 days,” Schrader said. “What people don’t realize is when you issue the permit, it’s good forever. You can’t revoke that once you issue it. Even if we had won down the road, those permits would’ve been in place without the injunction.”

Wells that now exist were drilled before Act 13 was passed, and they had to comply with local ordinances.

“They’ll just have to obey the township’s rules when they come in, no matter which township it is,” Schrader said.

State Rep. Jesse White, D-Cecil, in a statement portrayed the court battle in epic terms.

“On this day, David has defeated Goliath,” White said. “Despite the $1.3 million spent by the energy industry to write and pass its own law, and a governor and legislature all too eager to play along, each court that heard this case recognized the massive problems created by the zoning loopholes in Act 13.

“Eliminating local ordinances and replacing them with a ridiculously low standard of protections, like allowing drilling in residential neighborhoods and next to schools and churches, is not constitutional, not an environmental best practice, nor is it the proper way to do business in Pennsylvania.”

White noted that “ultimately, that what might be good for Wysox or Athens Township in northeastern Pennsylvania may not be good for Cecil or South Fayette Township here in the southwest. As we’ve said all along, this is why local zoning is so important.

“The real work is just beginning. It is time for Gov. (Tom) Corbett and the industry to swallow their pride and work with local municipalities to develop a responsible approach to natural gas drilling that will allow development of Marcellus Shale while creating a culture of true accountability and responsibility.”

State Senator Matt Smith, who represents Peters Township in Washington County and South Fayette Township in Allegheny County, plaintiffs in the lawsuit, said in a statement, “I applaud the court’s strong statement today to uphold and validate local control. I voted against Act 13 while serving in the House of Representatives, in part, because it restricted the zoning ability of local governments. I firmly believe that we can grow our economy through energy exploration, while balancing the rights of townships, boroughs and municipalities.

“I support the court’s conclusion that decisions impacting our neighborhoods should be made by locally elected and appointed officials rather than unelected Harrisburg officials.

“The state should not restrict local governments’ ability to distinguish residential neighborhoods from heavy industrial activity. In fact, it is one of the main purposes of local government in the first place.”

State Sen. Tim Solobay, D-Canonsburg, was attending a manufacturing roundtable Thursday in Beaver County knowing that a pronouncement from the state’s highest court was due at any time.

He made no announcement when he received word of the court’s decision, but shared it privately with a few participants.

Later, in a phone interview, Solobay said, “Eighty-five percent of the communities had no kind of zoning anyway. Most of the communities don’t want the nightmare of locating a pad site next to a house or school. At least Act 13 gave some guidelines instead of it being like the wild, wild west with nothing telling them they can’t do X, Y and Z.”

Revoking parts of Act 13 might create work for zoners and planners.

“Pennsylvania has uniformity in its building code, agricultural code and Game Commissioner, so for the Supreme Court to say there’s no precedence I thought was a wrong statement. We have an advantage that the resources are here. I think it will make the challenge a little bit different.

“I hope it’s not a case of ‘I told you so,’” Solobay said.

Marcellus Shale Coalition President Dave Spigelmyer also issued a statement on the state Supreme Court ruling.

“We are reviewing the Supreme Court’s decision in full to evaluate its impact on our operations across Pennsylvania. As we did prior to enactment of Act 13 and have done during this period of review by the state Supreme Court, Pennsylvania’s natural gas industry will continue to work collaboratively with the communities in which we operate to ensure shale development moves forward and we continue to realize the benefits at the local level and statewide. Although we will continue to collaborate with communities across the commonwealth, today’s decision is a disappointment and represents a missed opportunity to establish a standard set of rules governing the responsible development and operation of shale gas wells in Pennsylvania.

“This outcome should also serve as a stark reminder to policy makers of Pennsylvania’s business climate challenges. If we are to remain competitive and our focus is truly more job creation and economic prosperity, we must commit to working together toward common-sense proposals that encourage – rather than discourage – investment into the Commonwealth.”

Barbara S. Miller covers politics, Washington County government and a variety of other topics for the Observer-Reporter. She is a graduate of Washington & Jefferson College, majoring in English and history. Follow her on Twitter @reporterbarb.

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