Pennsylvania Supreme Court latest to uphold municipal rights
A sign indicates the growing tension between agricultural communities and gas companies. (Chris Jordan-Bloch / Earthjustice)
In mid-December the Pennsylvania Supreme Court found Act 13 is unconstitutional. This is a law that allowed state government to override local communities’ zoning decisions to limit hydraulic fracturing or fracking. The decision stems from a lawsuit by seven Pennsylvania municipalities, a doctor and the Delaware Riverkeeper Network. Earthjustice submitted a friend-of-the-court brief in the case, representing 22 organizations, including Marcellus Protest, Lehigh Valley Gas Truth and Berks Gas Truth.
Other state courts are facing this issue, too. Earlier in 2013, two New York state courts ruled in favor of towns that have limited industrial gas development through local zoning. Earthjustice is representing the Town of Dryden, one of the New York towns. The Ohio Supreme Court is considering a similar case, in which Earthjustice submitted a friend-of-the-court brief on behalf of health professionals.
The Pennsylvania and New York decisions are important precedents for local entities’ ability to fend off efforts to drill for oil and natural gas in and near communities concerned about the purity of their groundwater and other resources. Too many towns and their citizens have suffered contamination from fracking, and the industry and its political allies seem determined to continue and expand the practice no matter the consequences.
Deborah Goldberg, Earthjustice attorney involved in all three states, summed up:
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has ruled that stripping away the rights of local communities to protect themselves from fracking isn’t just bad for the environment, it’s bad for democracy. Thanks to this ruling from the Supreme Court, the law is crystal clear: local officials have the right to decide what industrial activities are appropriate within their communities. These local decision-makers know what’s best for their towns, not powerful oil and gas companies nor their bought-and-paid-for state politicians.
The closely related decisions should also bring hope to people fighting fracking in Colorado, California and elsewhere. Each situation is unique, but if the courts will continue to affirm the rights of people and local communities to defend themselves—via zoning or another technique—against the depredations of outsiders interested only in their own bottom lines, then there’s a chance to get a handle on the fracking frenzy before it’s too late.