Towns That Dare to Face Up to Fracking Industry Pay a Hefty Price

News & Politics

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Pennsylvania’s pro-fracking forces are punishing four townships that passed local environmental rights ordinances challenging the industry by withholding nearly $1 million from a new fund collected from gas drillers, under the first distribution of “impact fees” under Act 13, the pro-fracking law written by industry lobbyists.

The four townships—Cecil, Robinson, South Fayette and Mount Pleasant—had the audacity to adopt local zoning laws that barred the natural gas industry from setting up drill sites and infrastructure anywhere it wanted, which was allowed by Act 13, and then sued the state to protect local zoning rights. They did not want drilling sites near schools, parks and residential areas—although Pennsylvania state law says they must designate some drilling zones in their towns.

“There seems to be a conflict of interest,” said Ben Price, Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund Project Director, a public interest law firm that supports local anti-drilling ordinances. “The PUC [Public Utility Commission] is a party to the lawsuit [over local zoning rights], but the PUC is acting to challenge the ordinances of the municipalities in the lawsuit. It is really a state authorized slap suit if you will.”

Act 13’s usurpation of local zoning authority has been challenged by a coalition of towns and environmentalists as unconstitutional under the state’s Constitution. Earlier this year, a lower court upheld the townships’ local zoning rights, saying Act 13 overstepped Pennsylvania’s Constitution by unsurping local zoning authority. That ruling was then appealed by the Republican controlled executive branch and is now before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.

However, as that case has moved through the courts, the PUC this week made its first multi-million dollar distribution from an “impact fee” account created under Act 13 that assessed natural gas drillers.

Pro-fracking leaseholders in the four towns and a large Texas-based drilling company, Range Resources, filed legal papers with the state PUC—a separate process than the litigation before the Supreme Court—urging the PUC to override local anti-fracking ordinances. Those ordinances did not ban drilling outright, but said the industry could not come in and set up its operations anywhere. Instead, the towns would have zones, as all municipalities do, for a range of permissable activities.

The PUC’s spokeswoman said that the payments were being withheld because “local residents and producers have requested a review of the municipalities ordinances.”

That statement—to The New York Times—is a bland bureaucratic explanation that papers over the fact that Act 13 grants the PUC unprecedented power to overrule local zoning established under the state’s Constitution. In short, the “requests for review” by the pro-fracking landowners and Range Resources is an example of how a private corporation and other private interests—leaseholders—are using state power to assure their profits.

“It is what the state of Pennsylvania does all around these days,” Price said. “Act 13 authorizes the PUC to decide whether to challenge local ordinances based on requests from the communty—say a leaseholder wants to drill. The communities that are being scrutized by the PUC are the very communities that are challenging Act 13 in court.”

Price is hoping that the state Supreme Court will reaffirm the local zoning powers to restrict fracking. But he says, at best, that decision will not stop the drilling but only limit it to fracking zones designated by townships.

“I wish the municipalities well,” he said. “I hope the Supreme Court does not take away what the municipalities gained from the lower court. Before Act 13, you had to decide what parcels to surrender [to drilling]. Fracking can’t be banned. If they win, they don’t win [a full ban]. They hold the ground they held before.”

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