Pa. Supreme Court refuses reconsideration in Oil and Gas Act ruling

Pennsylvania’s highest court has denied a motion by the commonwealth to reconsider its ruling late last year that struck down portions of Act 13, commonly known as the state’s oil and gas law. In a one-sentence per curiam order Friday that contained no accompanying memorandum or explanation, the Supreme Court turned down a request by the state to rehear arguments in the case, which led to a landmark ruling that is expected to have a great impact on natural gas drilling in the commonwealth. Gov. Tom Corbett’s administration had petitioned the high court to reconsider its Dec. 19 decision, which struck down key zoning regulations and other provisions contained within the law. Jordan Yeager, the lead attorney representing parties who challenged the law in court, was quoted in local media saying the Supreme Court’s ruling will likely not be appealed to the federal courts because the case hinges on a state constitutional issue. Perhaps the most significant aspect of the high court’s decision was that it struck down as unconstitutional a provision that places zoning limitations on municipalities, essentially taking away their rights to regulate natural gas drilling on local lands. The plaintiffs in the case, which included Robinson Township in western Pennsylvania, and Nockamixon Township in suburban Philadelphia, challenged the law’s prohibiting municipalities from regulating natural gas activities within their borders through zoning restrictions. The Supreme Court also ruled that the Oil and Gas Act was unconstitutional because it violates Pennsylvania’s Environmental Rights Amendment, which says citizens have a right to clean air, pure water and to the preservation of the “natural, scenic, historic and aesthetic values of the environment.” Gov. Corbett panned the decision the day it came down, saying in a statement that, “we must not allow today’s ruling to send a negative message to job creators and families who depend on the energy industry.” While the majority last week decided against granting the defendants’ motion for reconsideration, one member of the high court, Justice Thomas Saylor, filed a dissenting statement in which he states that, “I am fully in line with the position that ‘[f]undamental fairness to a co-equal branch of government as well as adherence to this Court’s precedent and established procedure, mandates that the [Commonwealth parties] be afforded a reasonable opportunity to present evidence before any judicial proclamation is made about whether Act 13 satisfies the newly-mandated balancing test under Section 27’ of Article I of the Pennsylvania Constitution.” “The judiciary simply does not possess the ability to divine the consequences of a legislative enactment absent a developed factual record.” Others, such as Yeager, the plaintiffs’ attorney, praised the ruling after it came down. The attorney previously said the ruling was a “great historic victory for local democracy, for public health, and for the health of our environment.” In a statement, Yeager said that the Corbett administration and the Pennsylvania General Assembly tried to give away citizens’ rights to the natural gas industry. The Corbett administration’s motion for reconsideration had been opposed by the original challengers to the law on the grounds that the state, the Public Utility Commission and the Department of Environmental Protection failed to provide any compelling reasons for the extraordinary relief, according to the Delaware Riverkeeper Network, which had challenged Act 13. “The State has heard the final word on Act 13 from the highest authority,” Maya van Rossum, the Delaware riverkeeper, said in a statement from her organization. “Once again the primary rights of clean air, water, and a healthy environment for the people of the Commonwealth have been reiterated. “We hope the Governor and his administration can now finally accept that they were wrong in their attempt to undo the Court’s deliberations,” van Rossum continued. “The Governor should listen to what the Court has said and realize that the Court’s thoughtful, extensive set of opinions instructs all levels of government to fully adhere to their ruling. This is a great day for Pennsylvania.”

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