Court rules for towns in Pennsylvania fracking suit

WASHINGTON — A Pennsylvania court overturned key parts of the state’s new natural gas development law that would have stripped municipalities of zoning rights and handed state agencies sole authority to determine where the controversial practice of high-volume hydraulic fracturing should occur.

Critics of the law, Act 13, argued that it would have compelled municipalities to allow hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, almost anywhere a company requested, without taking into account surroundings such as nearby schools, homes and waterways.

Industry advocates, however, contended that the law provided a uniform statewide zoning system that would have further bolstered Pennsylvania’s fracking boom. The law carved out a niche for the oil and gas sector as the only industry in Pennsylvania exempt from local zoning ordinances.


In ruling for the plaintiffs, the four-judge majority on the state appellate court said that local zoning provided for “rational development” so “there is not a ‘pig in the parlor instead of the barnyard.’” The ruling can be appealed to the state Supreme Court.

Fracking involves the high-pressure injection of millions of gallons of water and sand laced with chemicals deep underground to fracture shale formations and unlock oil and gas deposits.

The issue of who has control over fracking — localities or the state — is playing out almost everywhere that the technique is being used to produce natural gas, and some experts expect this decision to resonate beyond Pennsylvania.

Ohio has a law with similar zoning provisions. Colorado authorities recently warned the city of Longmont that they planned to sue over its local fracking law. Several towns in New York are being sued by gas companies because they have banned fracking, with the companies arguing that only the state has jurisdiction over such matters.

Even in fossil-fuel-friendly Texas, Dallas homeowners have mounted a campaign for stricter zoning and regulation of fracking within city limits.

“States are failing to protect communities from fracking and its various impacts, so the only place people can turn is to is local government,” said John Rumpler, senior attorney for Environment America, an environmental advocacy group.

In Pennsylvania, the state was sued by seven municipalities, mostly in southwestern Pennsylvania, where fracking is widespread and growing. The towns were joined by an environmental group and a local doctor, and the complaint was made by Democrats and Republicans alike. John Smith, an attorney for the plaintiffs, said most of the towns already had fracking operations.

“We’re not against drilling; we just want it done responsibly,” said Andy Schrader, a supervisor for Cecil Township, one of the plaintiffs.

The state attorney general’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment. The state has 30 days to decide whether to appeal.

Industry advocates suggested that the ruling could slow a fracking rush in the state that has brought jobs and wealth to some communities — but also controversy over pollution. Marcellus Shale Coalition President Kathryn Z. Klaber said: “Lack of uniformity has long been an Achilles’ heel for Pennsylvania and must be resolved if the commonwealth is to remain a leader in responsible American natural gas development and reap the associated economic, environmental and national security benefits.”