This week the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court will hear oral argument on the legal challenge to portions of Act 13, the law passed earlier this year updating the state’s Oil and Gas Act.
Individuals including a medical doctor and a group of municipalities including Cecil, Mt. Pleasant, South Fayette and Robinson Townships in my legislative district are mounting the legal challenge. With so much propaganda from energy industry lobbyists and general misinformation and confusion out there, I want to set the record straight on what this legal challenge to Act 13 is all about, and explain one of the many reasons why I support it.
The challenge would not stop natural gas drilling in Pennsylvania. Act 13 superseded, or eliminated, any existing local ordinances dealing with natural gas operations and replaced them with a ridiculously low standard that cannot be strengthened by your local elected officials.
The law basically says oil and gas operations are not subject to the zoning laws every other person and business in Pennsylvania must abide by—a precedent which is not only horrible public policy, but also unconstitutional.
Article III, Section 32 of the Pennsylvania Constitution says: “The General Assembly shall pass no local or special law in any case which has been or can be provided for by general law and specifically the General Assembly shall not pass any local or specific law: 1. Regulating the affairs of counties, cities, townships, wards, boroughs, or school districts, … or 7. Regulating labor trade, mining or manufacturing.”
In plain English, the Legislature can’t pass a law that impacts people for the sole purpose of benefiting a specific industry, and that’s exactly what Act 13 does.
This law gives the natural gas industry virtually no local scrutiny while every other industry operating in Pennsylvania is required to follow the existing zoning requirements of the municipality in which they’re located. To those who say this is all just legal mumbo-jumbo, realize these provisions can and will impact you in a very direct and potentially negative way.
Municipalities are required to follow something called the Municipal Planning Code, which provides for zoning. Zoning is important because it’s the only thing that prevents an industrial use from being plopped down in the middle of a residential housing development. Zoning allows for the common-sense planning of a community, which makes that community more attractive for people to live there, which in turn creates a demand for business.
Simply put, zoning brings order to chaos and allows predictability for growth. Zoning also gives homeowners comfort in knowing they are reasonably secure in buying a home where they can raise their children safely.
Zoning is well-developed law in Pennsylvania, or at least it was until Act 13 was passed. Now oil and gas companies are permitted to locate the industrial use of oil and gas operations in any zoning district without any oversight or procedural protections. In a nutshell, the oil and gas industry has been given special rights that are significantly greater than any other group of citizens, including the people who have made significant investments by buying homes or opening businesses in the community, which is just wrong.
The sad part of the whole zoning aspect of Act 13 is that it simply did not have to be this way. Texas, specifically preserves local zoning rights, and no one can say they aren’t a drilling-friendly state.
To me, this is about a lack of local accountability and transparency that allows companies to do virtually anything they want without real oversight or concern for existing property owners. It’s about saving money, not about being a good neighbor. It’s overreaching and greed at the expense of our constitutional rights, and it’s just wrong.
To clear up another common attack from opponents of the Act 13 challenge, the attorney who filed the suit did the work pro bono, or totally for free. Despite what you may hear, not everyone involved in the public debate about ‘the right way’ is motivated solely by profit motive.
This is not costing the taxpayers money, and the benefits of winning this battle go far beyond dollars and sense for the people of Pennsylvania.