Pennsylvania court: Towns can restrict fracking

Opponents of hydraulic fracturing or 'fracking' hold placards during a rally in Lafayette Square, across from the White House, on September 25, 2013 in Washington, DC. The demonstrators say they have collected 250,000 signatures calling on the EPA to re-open investigations into alleged fracking related pollution cases in Pennsylvania, Texas and Wyoming.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has tossed out major provisions of Act 13 -- a state law that would have allowed gas companies to drill anywhere, without having to worry about local zoning laws.

It was a law that made some folks' blood boil. It stripped local governments of the ability to say where energy companies could put fracking wells and where they couldn’t.

“It completely eliminated local control and considerations of local concerns,” says Jordan Yeager, a partner at the law firm Curtin & Heefner, who represented some of the groups that opposed the law. The court’s 4-2 opinion “is genuinely an historic victory for the citizens of Pennsylvania and for public health and the environment,” says Yeager.

The court’s decision is also a decisive victory for the little guy in the growing battle between state and local governments over drilling policy.

“This was one of the first state attempts to craft far-reaching legislation to cover almost all aspects of shale gas drilling ,” says Barry Rabe, a professor at the Gerald Ford School of Public Policy at the University of Michigan.

Rabe says there’s a fundamental question of land use here: Who’s in charge? It’s popping up around the country in places like Colorado, Texas, and New York.

“Do states decide?  Do local governments decide? Do they work together? Or, in the Pennsylvania case do they collide, meet in court, and then presumably states and localities have to work to pick up the pieces as they go forward with this issue.”

Right now, says Rabe, states, communities and drillers are in uncharted territory.

About the author

Adriene Hill is the senior multimedia reporter for LearningCurve.

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