Energy. Environment. Economy.

Pennsylvania Supreme Court strikes down controversial portions of Act 13

A natural gas drilling site in Susquehanna County.

Marie Cusick/ StateImpact Pennsylvania

A natural gas drilling site in Susquehanna County.

The state Supreme Court struck down several controversial portions of Act 13 today. The 2012 law made major updates to the rules governing Pennsylvania’s oil and gas industry.

In a 4-2 decision, the court held that portions of the law dealing with restrictions on local zoning violate Pennsylvania’s constitution. Chief Justice Ron Castille was joined by justices Todd, McCafferty and Baer in the majority. Justices Saylor and Eakin issued dissenting opinions.

Zoning rules deemed unconstitutional

One section of the law found unconstitutional called for statewide rules on oil and gas to preempt local zoning rules. Another section required municipalities to allow oil and gas development in all zoning areas.

In the majority opinion, the justices say both those provisions violate the Environmental Rights Amendment of the state constitution which guarantees, ”clean air, pure water, and to the preservation of the natural, scenic, historic and esthetic values of the environment. ”

They cite Pennsylvania’s history with coal and timber as lessons which lead to the amendment.

“Pennsylvania has a notable history of what appears, retrospectively, to have been a shortsighted exploitation of its bounteous environment, affecting its minerals, its water, its air, its flora and fauna and its people.”

“When government acts,” they write, “the actions must on balance reasonably account for the environment of the affected locale.”

“A historic decision”

Jordan Yeager is an attorney with Curtin & Heefner, representing local governments who challenged Act 13.

“This decision elevates that constitutional provision and says it’s real and needs to be respected,” he says. “It’s a very important historic decision.”

Yeager says towns still can’t zone out oil and gas development entirely. The portions of Act 13 that were struck down had tried to remove their discretion on where it could go.

“This said you had to allow it in every zoning district,” he explains. “If you want to build a nursing home in a community, you can’t just put it anywhere, you have to only do it in those zoning districts where it’s allowed. Under Act 13, there were greater regulations for nursing homes than for gas drilling. It was an unprecedented overreach by the legislature.”

Environmental groups also applauded the decision.

“This ruling is a victory for our local communities, whose interests the Corbett administration has consistently put behind that of the oil and gas industry” said Sierra Club Pennsylvania Chapter President Jeff Schmidt.

“We are heartened to see that the Court recognized this massive overreach by the Pennsylvania legislature is indeed unconstitutional,” said Erika Staaf, of PennEnvironment.

“A negative message”

Governor Corbett issued a statement expressing his disappointment with the decision.

“We are continuing to review today’s decision,” Governor Corbett said. “We must not allow today’s ruling to send a negative message to job creators and families who depend on the energy industry.”

David Spigelmyer, president of the gas industry trade group, the Marcellus Shale Coalition, echoed similar sentiments.

“Although we will continue to collaborate with communities across the Commonwealth, today’s decision is a disappointment and represents a missed opportunity to establish a standard set of rules governing the responsible development and operation of shale gas wells in Pennsylvania,” he said in a statement.

Other issues

The court also found another section of Act 13 which allowed the Department of Environmental Protection to grant waivers for setback requirements from water sources to be unconstitutional.

The justices also weighed in on the so-called “doctor gag rule” of Act 13. The language in the law has some medical professionals concerned they could get in trouble for disclosing chemical trade secrets associated with gas drilling. The high court says that legal challenge can continue and it was sent it back to the lower Commonwealth Court.

Read an annotated version of the majority opinion:



  • Kathie

    It’s about time Pennsylvania citizens wake up and take a good look at how the gas and oil industry is taking our natural resources away from us and destroying our country side!!!

    • danielmparker

      The natural gas well infrastructure is just now really beginning to be connected. When it is really transportable to fuel and provide chemicals to industries the Rust Belt portion of PA will bloom with jobs and wealth.

  • Don Williams

    Another lump of coal for our Good Governor.

  • JimBarth

    It’s fitting that Marie Cusick quotes David Spigelmyer and Gov. Corbett. Before MSC, Spigelmyer was a V.P. for Chesapeake, I believe as the head of governmental relations (wining, dining and lobbying the likes of the Governor, while Chesapeake dropped hundreds of thousands of dollars into Corbett’s campaign chest)?

    Just consider Jordan Yeager’s comment on nursing homes in relation to zoning as compared to Act 13′s shale gas extraction vs. zoning. As long as Corbett, Spigelmyer, and their frac’er friends do not acknowledge the gross injustice of Act 13 along these lines, they are nothing more than buffoons.

  • danielmparker

    Makes PA to be more of an ungovernable cabal. Better change the constitution.

    • JimBarth

      Since when does our Commonwealth’s constitution, or, our Supreme Court ruling on Act 13, make PA “more of an ungovernable cabal”? Just consider a definition of the word cabal, “the artifices and intrigues of a group of persons secretly united in a plot”. I won’t go further into the fact that the use of the word “cabal” is thoroughly inappropriate.

      It would seem Mr. Parker might prefer an authoritarian government, top down ruling, such as Act 13 imposed? Would the extraction trains have “run on time” instead of being now, “ungovernable”? Perhaps a veritable oil/gas oligarchy dictating do’s and don’ts throughout the State is his preference?

      I’ll take this opportunity to express my wonder at how the very people who vehemently push the “states rights” ideology on the national level, and who, when it comes to oil and gas extraction deplore any regulation or enforcement by the US EPA, in the next sentence full throatedly support a State’s unquestionable authority over a County, or Township on all things related to oil and gas extraction, even to the point the Commonwealth’s Supreme Court just declared unconstitutional.

      The cabal is Corbett, Krancer (when he was Sec PADEP), Blank Rome, Spigelmyer, Komorowski, and hundreds of others who work for, and represent, the industry, not the hundreds of townships who want to control zoning in their small areas, not the doctors who don’t want to be gagged, and not those who live in residential areas, that do not want a gas well, or frac waste impoundment, three hundred feet from their front door, or a well pad fifty feet away.

  • Austine Wallace

    Environmental protection is always the right thing to do. Every step used to thwart a big Company with a lot of money and profits would be a step toward victory for the entire country. If they’re not cut back [not 'tapered off'] they will spread out. There should be a freedom of information act about the dangers of this sort of environmental exploitation and the ruin that it is already well known to cause.

  • Deb

    Governor Corbett has clearly chosen the oil and gas industry, those who have lined his pockets with cash, over his constituents. He and every senator and house of representative individual who voted for Act 13 should be voted OUT on the next election. They were not concerned for the people of the Commonwealth – they were concerned for their own monetary gain.

  • Interested Reader

    Could you please post a downloadable pdf of the majority, concurring and dissenting opinions? No news site I’ve checked includes these. Thank you!

  • Interested Reader

    This opinion re-affirms what makes the U.S.A. (or at least the PA part of it) different from countries like China that don’t have rule of law. Thankfully, this court has properly read the PA constitution to stop an industry-centric administration from giving industry free license to poison our air and water while making a very few people rich at the expense of the rest of us and generations to come.

  • Guy Who Read Act 13

    Did anyone here actually read Act 13? The Act is clearly safer and environmentally cautious than what mining companies are already doing in PA. Plus, while local governments are restricted to pass new laws that go against Act 13, Act 13 itself provides local governments controls against mining companies if need be. Read before you write, this is how intelligent discussions are discussed

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