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Banning Corporate Personhood: How Communities Are Taking the Law Back from Big Companies

Ben Price of the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund explains how communities can fight corporate power with a new legal weapon.

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Doesn't mean we have no local control over gas drilling in Pennsylvania. We can say where they can drill, but not whether or not they can drill -- the idea of zoning being that we still retain the authority to segregate incompatible uses of land, to try to keep the drill rigs away from the swings and the monkey bars in the kids' playground. We can try to do that.

You can separate incompatible uses of land, but you're not allowed to say "no" to a legal use of land. That's where we are in Pennsylvania. I don't want that to be where you come to in New York.

When it comes to what authority and what power we have to protect our health, safety and welfare at the local level, we're up against three main obstacles. The first one is state preemption, which I just talked about briefly, which is where the state decides to adopt state laws, or to amend existing laws that strip that local authority. In New York, as well as in other states, general laws of the state apply to all communities, and if a general law specifically preempts -- in other words, it strips the authority of the municipality -- to say "no" to a particular legal use of land -- and how do we know it's a legal use of land? Well, permits are issued for it. Permits are issued for gas drilling by the State of New York. You have not yet been preempted to adopt local land use laws that have the effect of excluding gas drilling. And I do agree with Helen -- that's a tool you should use. You have it, you should use it. You should, in fact.

Preemption is one of the main obstacles we have to overcome if it's in place. Right now, you don't have preemption of land use in place, but you do have preemption in terms of regulating the industry. State law essentially says, yes, you can in effect preempt it through your land use decisions, but you can't say anything about the process of the extraction. You can't regulate the industrial activity itself. The state has occupied the field of regulation there, and that is to say you are preempted.

But those laws in existence today in New York that say you can stop it through land use are not immutable, and they're not perpetual.

There's another obstacle to local control called "Dylan's Rule," and it's a theory of law that says -- by the way, it's not in the U.S. Constitution; it's not really even in the state constitution -- but it's a tradition of and a theory of law that says municipalities essentially have the same relationship to the state -- the state legislature -- as a child has to a parent -- which is to say that the municipality has no authority of its own and no agency of its own unless the state delegates that power and that authority ... which also means that at any given time the state can withdraw that power or that authority. That's the experience I've been relating to that we've had in Pennsylvania on lots of issues.

By the way, it's also the experience they have in Ohio. In 2005, the state legislature adopted a law dealing with the regulation of oil and gas, and they stripped municipalities of the authority to regulate -- to do anything at the local level that applies to those industries.

We're used to hearing about that horrible term, the "Halliburton loophole." Most of you have heard that, right? It's that horrible thing that they did at the federal level that said this gas industry is exempt from a host of federal laws that purport to protect our environment and our communities -- you know, the Clean Drinking Water Act; the Clean Air Act; the Superfund Act -- things like that.