Act 13 of 2012 created a uniform statewide standard for gas drilling in Pennsylvania. However, local municipalities continued to argue that this new law essentially strips away their authority over how drilling companies can operate within their communities.
As a result, seven municipalities with a wide range of local governments supporting them, decided to legally challenge Act 13. The lawsuit essentially argued that municipalities are unable to fulfill their constitutional duties of protecting the environment and the health and safety of their citizens because the law forces them to allow various components of the natural gas drilling process - including drilling, waste pits, compressor and processing stations and pipelines - within their boundaries, including residential areas as long as certain buffers are observed.
In July 2012, the Commonwealth Court struck down the zoning provisions in the law, but Governor Corbett appealed this decision arguing that the state has the authority to override local zoning. In the meantime, the state was directed to not enforce the disputed provisions of Act 13 while the case was under appeal.
Last month, a 4-2 decision was made by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court to overturn portions of Act 13, stating parts of the law were unconstitutional and that the Commonwealth cannot force municipalities into allowing natural gas drilling within their boundaries. Three of the justices ruled that the law violated the Environmental Rights Amendment whereas the fourth concurring opinion found the law to have violated due process rights of the municipalities to carry out community planning. Now, municipal governments will once again have the ability to determine when and where drilling can occur locally.
The Supreme Court also overruled the Commonwealth Court decision not to grant standing to an Allegheny County doctor who challenged provisions of Act 13 that prevents doctors that are treating people who may have been exposed to drilling-related chemicals from disclosing information on the materials. As a result of the decision, the Allegheny County doctor can now legally challenge the law in court.
With the high court ruling behind us, it’s time for our state to finally move forward. As we proceed, we need to tailor our policies on the lessons learned in the past five years and seize the opportunities this ruling provides with a responsible balance between economic development and remaining good stewards of our environment.