Ongoing conflict between Pennsylvania’s booming natural gas industry and its opponents will reach a new focus on October 17 when the state’s Supreme Court will hear oral arguments over whether state law can pre-empt local regulations over gas development.
At issue is a section of Act 13, a wide-ranging new law that restricts the ability of municipalities to control the location of gas drilling within their bounds, as well as imposing impact fees and a host of other conditions on the industry drilling in the gas-rich Marcellus and Utica Shales beneath Pennsylvania.
The pre-emption provisions were ruled unconstitutional by the appellate Commonwealth Court in July, and that decision was immediately appealed by the administration of Governor Tom Corbett, a strong supporter of the gas industry.
The industry argues that it needs uniform statewide rules in order to efficiently extract the state’s vast gas reserves, and would be impeded by having to comply with a patchwork of local regulations.
Drew Crompton, an aide to state Senator Joe Scarnati, and one of the authors of the legislation, said the law was drafted to counter the effects of some townships that had passed zoning ordinances that effectively prevented oil and gas companies moving into their areas.
Some have been using residential zoning to block gas development despite that zoning designation being in rural areas far from any houses, he said.
“Companies have been getting badgered by many local governments with often unconstitutional dictate because of political will on a local level,” Crompton said.
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He said the law represents only a partial pre-emption of local regulation by state authority but argued that an increasing uniformity of regulation is needed in order for the state to reap the full benefits from its rich gas resource.
Unless the lower court ruling is struck down, there will be less development and fewer jobs, and less opportunity for landowners to benefit financially from leasing their land, Crompton said.
None of the municipalities in this case have ever sought to ban drilling, so these false claims about endangering jobs and jeopardizing energy independence are just lies,” – White, State Representative
He took issue with the Commonwealth Court which ruled that the state legislature did not have the right to impose state law on municipalities. “Does the General Assembly have the power to do what they did?” he asked. “The answer is unequivocally yes.”
But opponents including many townships, environmental groups, and 44 Democratic state lawmakers, say the law is an unwarranted intrusion into local self-government by an overbearing industry backed by the Republican-controlled state legislature.
“None of the municipalities in this case have ever sought to ban drilling, so these false claims about endangering jobs and jeopardizing energy independence are just lies,” said State Representative Jesse White who represents parts of three counties in southwest Pennsylvania’s gas country, and is one of the Democrats who has filed an amicus brief with the Supreme Court, urging it to uphold the lower court’s ruling.
“The shale boom was occurring before Act 13 was passed and the industry was doing just fine with local ordinances in place, so to say they’re going to go broke because a township requires them to build a higher fence around an impoundment is so absurd it’s embarrassing,” White said in a statement.
The Commonwealth Court ruling was a victory for seven townships who sued the Commonwealth to overturn the zoning provisions in Act 13.
Other parties calling on the high court to uphold the earlier ruling include the Pennsylvania chapter of the American Planning Association, which also argued that local control of land use should not be weakened.
“We believe that municipalities are best suited to handle local land use planning by utilizing comprehensive plans and zoning ordinances without State pre-emption,” said Kyle Guie of the state APA.