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Pa. Supreme Court blocks pro-industry provisions of gas drilling law

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court on Wednesday struck down pro-industry provisions of a 2012 state law adopted amid the Marcellus shale drilling boom, yet another court decision that chips away at the law.

“I couldn’t be happier,” said Dave Ball, a councilman for Peters Township, one of the winning parties in the case. “I’m really happy for the people of Pennsylvania. That’s why we entered the suit to begin with.”

Four of the court’s six participating justices agreed in an 88-page decision to strike down parts of the law that a lawyer for one plaintiff described as “gifts” given by the Legislature to the gas industry.

“It generally was, in a lot of respects, an unconstitutional special law,” said lawyer Jordan Yeager, an attorney for the Delaware River Keeper Network. “It was carving out a unique set of benefits for the gas drilling industry that no other industry enjoyed. … Our constitution says you can’t do that.”

Jon Kamin, solicitor for South Fayette, another party in the case, said he was “thrilled” with the ruling.

“The victory (Wednesday) is a victory for all of Pennsylvania and protects the fundamental rights of every citizen,” Kamin said.

For the most part, the provisions being challenged in court had been unused. But Yeager said the threat remained that state utility regulators could punish a municipality financially if a gas drilling company complained the municipality had enacted an ordinance stricter than state law.

This decision will give those municipalities “breathing room” to enact tougher ordinances on the natural gas industry, Yeager said.

The Marcellus Shale Coalition, a natural gas exploration industry trade group, warned of the economic consequences of the decision, The Associated Press reported.

“We’re disappointed in aspects of the court’s ruling, which will make investing and growing jobs in the commonwealth more — not less — difficult without realizing any environmental or public safety benefits,” the organization’s president, David Spigelmyer, said in a statement.

Matt Haverstick, an attorney for the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission, said he was reviewing the ruling but was unhappy with the outcome.

“It’s discouraging that there’s an industry trying to bring prosperity to Pennsylvania and there seems to be a small cadre trying to kill it,” Haverstick said.

The plaintiffs included several townships in heavily drilled Southwestern Pennsylvania — Peters, Cecil and Mt. Pleasant in Washington County, and Robinson and South Fayette in Allegheny County — and Nockamixon Township and Yardley Borough in southeastern Pennsylvania’s Bucks County, where officials had been worried about their inability to control natural gas exploration.

With Wednesday’s ruling, there are no legal issues left to be decided, said John M. Smith, solicitor for Peters.

“It’s satisfying and disheartening at the same time,” Smith said. “Satisfying that the court upheld the decision, disheartening that the legislators ignored the law.”

The lawsuit was filed in 2012, weeks after the Republican-controlled Legislature passed the legislation and it was signed by then-Gov. Tom Corbett, a Republican.

In late 2013, the Supreme Court struck down perhaps the most controversial aspect: provisions that limited the power of local governments to determine where the industry can operate.

In 2014, a lower court blocked a related provision that had allowed state utility regulators to review how local zoning restrictions affect the natural gas industry, and punish municipalities whose restrictions were more stringent than the state’s.

The high court upheld that ruling on Wednesday.

It struck down two other provisions in the law: One that the justices said amounts to illegal eminent domain for a private purpose, natural gas storage, and the “medical gag rule.”

The “gag rule” required drilling or service companies to disclose the proprietary content of hydraulic fracturing solutions to doctors who may be treating patients who came into contact with them, but it allowed companies to require doctors to keep the information confidential.

The ruling did not appear to leave intact any requirement for the companies to disclose proprietary information to health professionals.

The Associated Press contributed. Tony Raap is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7827 or [email protected].


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