It has been widely reported that the Act 13 decision by the state Supreme Court reaffirmed the zoning rights of local communities when it comes to Marcellus Shale development. Unfortunately, in the decision’s aftermath, the natural gas industry’s strategy is becoming clear. Instead of working with municipalities to find solutions, the industry is doubling down on bullying tactics that haven’t worked.
Gov. Tom Corbett said in a press release, “We must not allow [this] ruling to send a negative message to job creators and families who depend on the energy industry.” The Marcellus Shale Coalition sent a letter to newspapers across Pennsylvania implying the Act 13 decision would discourage investment in Pennsylvania, hurting “job creation and economic prosperity.”
Another scare tactic has been to incorrectly imply that money from impact fees will go away. But all of this ominous talk about economic doom is simply without merit. Because the legal challenge happened before Act 13 took effect, municipalities were able to keep their zoning ordinances until the Supreme Court made a decision. As a result, the process of getting a drilling permit now will be the same as it was before. The Act 13 challenge was about stopping a bad law from taking effect, not about creating new regulations.
In other words, the same regulatory environment that allowed Pennsylvania to become the fastest-growing natural gas producing state is the same regulatory environment that we have now, after the Act 13 decision.
Before the Act 13 ruling, some drilling companies bullied local governments to get what they wanted. They packed meetings with employees, staged boycotts of local businesses, and even lied to leaseholders by claiming the municipality was the reason they weren’t drilling. They threatened lawsuits constantly, and didn’t hesitate to file suit to prove a point.
When all of that didn’t work, the industry went running to Harrisburg and spent $1.3 million in just three months to lobby the Legislature to take away municipal zoning rights. They didn’t like the rules, so they paid to have them changed. Luckily, it didn’t work. The Supreme Court has spoken, and the people of Pennsylvania can take comfort in knowing that our Constitution was the one thing the industry couldn’t buy.
No one can deny that the early years of Marcellus Shale development left scars on many of our small communities, from both a policy and a political standpoint. But the Act 13 decision offers a unique opportunity for a fresh start, a rare do-over that we need to seize and embrace.
The industry should take steps to work with, not against, local officials. They should show more respect towards the people of Pennsylvania by having meetings in public instead of skirting the Sunshine Law behind closed doors. They should be responsive to the concerns of local residents, instead of simply dismissing them as enemies. They should earn a social license to operate in Pennsylvania, because trying to buy one clearly didn’t work.
And above all, when the industry screws up, they should admit to it and do what is necessary to prevent the problem from happening again. Lots of us have learned that lesson, and they should, too.
It’s a pretty simple strategy, and one that will pay dividends to the companies and to our communities. Will it happen? Only time will tell.
Jesse White represents Pennsylvania’s 46th Legislative District.