Pa. Supreme Court makes the right call
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s decision last week that parts of the oil and gas drilling law Act 13 were unconstitutional was the right call. It must be counted as a victory not just for the plaintiffs, which included some local municipalities, but for all of the commonwealth’s residents.
To recap: In February 2012, the Legislature approved Act 13, which tried to create uniform gas-drilling regulations from Philadelphia to Erie and also put a structure in place so communities could receive impact fees from drilling in lieu of an extraction tax. However, soon after it was signed by Gov. Tom Corbett, several communities, including Cecil, Mt. Pleasant, Peters and Robinson townships in Washington County, and neighboring South Fayette Township in Allegheny County, filed suit. They argued that the zoning provisions of the law usurped the authority of planning commissions, supervisors and other local lawmakers to regulate drilling and associated industries in their own backyards and plan communities as they see fit.
The Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania agreed with them, and, over a year after the case was argued before them, the state’s highest court concurred. They also asked the lower court to review Act 13 challenges that had previously been dismissed, such as a part of the law that would have limited how much doctors can talk about the chemicals used in natural gas drilling – a so-called “doctor gag rule.” Commonwealth Court was also asked to re-examine the question of whether Act 13 unduly benefits one industry.
Without question, natural gas drilling has brought economic benefits to individuals and the region as a whole. And natural gas is a fuel that is both cheaper than coal and has less of an environmental impact. We support drilling as long as it is done safely, with respect for the health and well-being of nearby residents. The dream that all of our energy needs can be met by solar and wind is just that – a dream. Until such time that those technologies are fine-tuned, natural gas can serve as a “bridge” fuel.
However, Act 13 simply gave away too much to a natural gas industry that has not been shy when it comes to using strong-arm tactics against elected officials and critics. One-size-fits-all zoning regulations snatch away crucial local oversight from communities. Though the gas industry has claimed that it needs uniformity and predictability in order to do business in Pennsylvania, local officials must have latitude about where drilling can take place. It is, after all, an industrial process, even if it is carried out only temporarily.
In the wake of the ruling, there have been predictable cries and threats from the industry and their water-carriers in Harrisburg that jobs will be lost and economic vitality will be drained away from the state. That seems unlikely, though, considering that Pennsylvania is second only to Texas in natural gas output. Drilling will be able to continue, as it has for the last several years. Given the investment energy companies have already made here, they are not going anywhere.
Robinson Township Supervisor Brian Coppola, who lost his seat on the board largely due to his stance on gas-drilling issues, said it well: “I think this puts a period on it. It was an enormous overreach by the government and the gas industry.”