Jurisprudential Fracture Chiropracture: Pennsylvania Justices Make a Salutary Adjustment of Erroneous Precedent

Posted on January 28, 2014 by Deborah Goldberg

On December 19, 2013, in Robinson Township v. Pennsylvania, a three-justice plurality of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court revived the previously moribund Environmental Rights Amendment of the Pennsylvania Constitution, which provides: 

The people have a right to clean air, pure water, and to the preservation of the natural, scenic, historic and esthetic values of the environment.  Pennsylvania’s public natural resources are the common property of all the people, including generations to come.  As trustee of these resources, the Commonwealth shall conserve and maintain them for the benefit of all the people.

Pa. Const. art. 1, § 27.  According to the plurality, lower courts interpreting the provision had been disregarding the constitutional text in favor of a judge-made rule under which the Environmental Rights Amendment offered protection only through implementing legislation.  The plurality noted that when “prior decisional law has obscured the manifest intent of a constitutional provision . . . [,] adjustment of precedent is . . . salutary.”  Slip op. at 64.

The realigned jurisprudence, under the plurality’s interpretation, now recognizes a directly enforceable right to clean air, pure water, and to the preservation of the natural, scenic, historic and esthetic values of the environment, which limits state power; common ownership of public natural resources, meaning all resources that “implicate the public interest” (air, water, wild flora and fauna) but are outside the scope of purely private property; and a trustee relationship, under which both state and local government must manage those resources for the benefit of “all the people,” including future generations.  The trust provision may be enforced by “citizen beneficiaries. . . in accordance with established principles of judicial review,” id. at 85, as well as by municipalities on behalf of their citizens. 

Relying exclusively on the trust provision, the plurality ruled that provisions of a state law that purported to preempt local environmental regulation of oil and gas operations and that required localities to authorize drilling in all zoning districts violated the Environmental Rights Amendment.  A concurring opinion by one justice, based on substantive due process, resulted in a 4-2 decision invalidating those provisions.  The decision thus transforms a state ceiling on environmental regulation of the oil and gas industry into a floor.  

In more than 70 pages addressed to the Equal Rights Amendment, the plurality dropped tantalizing hints about the further potential reach of its analysis.  The opinion suggests that government actions imposing “much heavier environmental and habitability burdens” on some properties and communities than on others—i.e., causing environmental injustice—violates the trustee’s obligation to manage the trust corpus for the benefit of “all the people.”  Under the plurality’s interpretation, moreover, respect for the rights of future generations requires that the state’s power to promote prosperity “be exercised in a manner that promotes sustainable property use and economic development.”  Id. at 79.  Whether Pennsylvania’s judiciary is ready for the new jurisprudence of environmental rights contemplated by the plurality remains to be seen.  A motion for reconsideration is pending before the Supreme Court.

FOUR CENTURIES OF FUEL FORAGING IN PENNSYLVANIA

Posted on October 4, 2012 by Joseph Manko

For four centuries Pennsylvania has been at the epicenter of America’s search for growth-sustaining fuel, but not without paying an environmental price.  In the 18th century, Pennsylvania’s (literally “Penn’s Woods”) abundant forests supplied wood to fuel America’s expansive westward development.  In denuding its forests, however, Pennsylvania experienced enhanced erosion and sedimentation and other environmental detriments.

In the 19th century, 1859 specifically, oil was discovered in Oil City. Pennsylvania (and America) turned its attention from wood to oil.  Although primary oil production shifted eventually to the Gulf states, nevertheless, Pennsylvania, as an oil producer, enjoyed the benefits and suffered the environmental detriments created by laissez faire, unregulated drilling and transportation of petroleum.

By the 20th century, coal was king in Pennsylvania.  The residual impacts from coal mining, especially strip mining, remain to this day in the form of scarred landscapes, acid mine drainage and air emissions, albeit the impacts are now monitored amid a focus on environmental enforcement efforts.

In the 21st century coal remains a force in energy production in Pennsylvania, but again nature has put the state in the national discussion over domestic fuel protection as it has become a national leader in developing the natural gas entrapped in the Marcellus Shale underlying large portions of southwest, north central and northeastern Pennsylvania.  Natural gas extracted from the Marcellus Shale has become Pennsylvania’s (and increasingly, America’s) fuel of choice for the 21st century.  Will the environmental legacy be different this time?

In February, 2012, Pennsylvania enacted The Oil and Gas Act Amendments of 2012, known as Act 13, in an attempt to adapt Pennsylvania’s longstanding Oil and Gas Act to issues unique to the technique used to fracture layers of shale and release natural gas, commonly known as “fracking.”  The Amendments raise a number of new legal issues:

1.    By offering shale gas fees to host municipalities who are willing to accept them, the Act preempts accepting municipalities from enacting zoning ordinances to regulate fracking.  A recent Commonwealth Court decision held such preemption unconstitutional.  An appeal by the State is pending before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.  Briefs have been filed and oral argument is scheduled for October 17 in Pittsburgh.

2.    Despite mandatory setback distances from wells, required by the Amendments, instances of citizens claiming that or suing because their water supply was contaminated as a result of the recovery of shale gas, either through leakage, spillage, or other events will need to be resolved.

3.    Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection has differed with EPA and the Delaware River Basin Commission regarding how much authority these agencies should have to regulate operations associated with Marcellus Shale gas production. 

4.    In a victory for the shale gas industry, the District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania invalidated a 2009 U.S. Forest Services Agreement with environmental groups that would have required the preparation of a NEPA environmental assessment prior to drilling in U.S. forests. 

5.    Some property owners who have leased their subsurface drilling rights for Marcellus Shale gas recovery have found themselves unable to refinance their mortgages.  Although the property owners argue that their land has become more valuable because of the potential recovery of fees from the Marcellus Shale gas recovery, some banks have refused to refinance claiming that the fracking lowers the value of the property because of the potential of pollution and/or the location of drilling rigs and other heavy equipment on the property, thereby making foreclosure more difficult. 

6.    Pennsylvania’s Public Utility Commission (PUC) is the collector under Act 13 of the “impact fees” from natural gas well operators – which have to date exceeded $200 million and will be distributed in large part to “accepting” host municipalities.  In accordance with Act 13, the PUC has also begun issuing advisory opinions on the legality of local zoning ordinances.  The Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s decision on the Commonwealth Court’s invalidation of the preemption issue could affect how the PUC approaches these matters going forward. 

While the sources of fuel and the techniques for obtaining it have changed much over the centuries in Pennsylvania, fuel production from forests, coal mines, oil rigs and fracking wells share a common legacy, initially attracting often environmentally insensitive wild catters, raising issues of local control versus the need for statewide uniformity, and creating the risk of potentially permanent environmental impacts if state-of-the-art environmental protections are not implemented.  In sum, notwithstanding changes in preferred fuel sources over the past four centuries, the issues, impacts and challenges remain similar; the need to balance energy production and environmental protection, or, as they say – “the more things change, the more they remain the same”.  Rather than be resigned to repeating history, however, the Commonwealth should rise to the challenge and use its acquired knowledge to inform our discussion as to how to utilize its resources, including natural gas, to provide energy solutions going forward.