Remainder of Act 13 case gets court date

March 18, 2014
This Range Resources natural gas well at the O’Donnell Pad at 178 Buffalo Road North in Hopewell Township is one of many Marcellus Shale wells in Washingon County. - Robin Richards/Observer-Reporter Order a Print

The outstanding issues in the ongoing legal tussle over Act 13, the state’s oil and gas drilling law, will be argued May 14 when Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court convenes in Philadelphia.

When the state Supreme Court decided by a 4-2 vote in December that the zoning provisions of Act 13 were unconstitutional because they stripped municipalities of their land-use and planning rights, they also asked that Commonwealth Court re-examine some of the arguments brought in the suit that the lower court did not address or dismissed the first time around.

According to a memorandum issued Thursday by Commonwealth Court Judge Dan Pellegrini, the four issues that will be argued in May are whether the owners of private wells have the same right to be notified of spills from drilling operations, a right that the proprietors of public wells have under the law; if the Public Utility Commission still has the authority to review the zoning ordinances of municipalities; whether eminent domain can be invoked by oil and gas companies; and whether the Act 13 provision that limits what doctors and other health professionals can reveal about the chemicals used in the drilling process – a gag rule, essentially – is constitutional.

With no issue having been raised about impact fees by the Public Utility Commission, they will stay in place, according to John Smith, the attorney representing several of the municipalities in the suit. Those fees yield about $200 million to communities across the commonwealth every year.

“The rest of the law stays in place,” Smith explained.

Act 13 was approved by the Pennsylvania General Assembly and signed into law by Gov. Tom Corbett in early 2012, with proponents arguing that it created uniformity in the rules governing oil and gas drilling in the state, and established regulations in communities that did not have them.

However, opponents argued that the law, particularly its zoning provisions, gave too much latitude to energy companies and stripped them of their rights to determine where and when drilling could take place.

Within weeks of Act 13 becoming law, Cecil, Robinson, Peters and Mt. Pleasant townships in Washington County, as well as South Fayette Township in Allegheny County and two municipalities in the eastern part of the state, filed suit against the state. Commonwealth Court, for the most part, ruled in their favor in July 2012, with the Supreme Court upholding its decision in December.

A request by the Corbett administration for the state Supreme Court to reconsider the case was denied last month.

Brad Hundt came to the Observer-Reporter in 1998 after stints at newspapers in Georgia and Michigan. Brad holds a bachelor’s degree in communications from George State University in Atlanta, Ga., and a master’s in popular culture studies from Bowling Green (Ohio) State University. He has covered the arts and entertainment for the O-R, and also worked as a municipal beat reporter. He now serves as editorial page editor.

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