Pennsylvania Appellate Court’s Decision Intensifies Fracking Debate

By Sarah Goldmuntz, Intern

The debate about zoning of natural gas drilling and hydraulic fracturing has intensified with a recent decision by a Pennsylvania appellate court that struck down crucial parts of the law known as Act 13. The law would have required that drilling, waste water pits and pipelines be allowed in all zoning districts, effectively giving zoning rights to state agencies.  Those against the law, particularly local governments and anti-fracking activists, contended that the law was unconstitutional because it would have revoked the zoning power traditionally reserved to municipalities. Opponents also feared that fracking activities would become rampant in residential neighborhoods, which might have exposed inhabitants to unintended harm.

Even some in favor of fracking opposed the law because of its implications for other businesses that are typically regulated at the local level. In particular, opponents worried that the law would have given the state permission to approve coal portals, washing plants and other such industries in all neighborhoods, which have the potential to compromise air and water quality.

In the case Robinson Township vs. The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, the court sided with the opponents of the law in a 4-3 decision. The majority opinion, written by President Judge Dan Pellegrini, concluded that the law would have violated the state constitution and invalidated many existing municipal zoning regulations. The decision returns zoning control to municipal agencies, allowing them direct oversight of fracking and other activities in their boundaries.

Proponents of Act 13, primarily those in the natural gas industry and Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett, contended that the law could have helped create uniform drilling regulations, thereby promoting the safe and expedited development of natural gas resources. Supporters further argued that by overturning the law, Pennsylvania would miss out on effectively developing its natural gas industry.

The Pennsylvania Attorney General has appealed the decision, and the case could go to the State Supreme Court as early as October.

+ posts