Seems like a long time since last summer when eight Berks County municipalities, including the City of Reading, passed resolutions opposing the local control exemption in Act 13. The law, enacted in February 2012, amended Pennsylvania’s Oil and Gas Act. Among its more notable provisions were the establishment of an impact fee on gas drilling, a physician’s gag order on disclosing information needed to treat patients received from the industry, and the exemption of municipal control over all oil and gas drilling operations.
Since then, Berks County municipalities in the path of the proposed Commonwealth pipeline experienced a similar exemption under federal pipeline rules. Chairmen of the Boards of Supervisors of both Alsace and Union Townships were blindsided when surveyors for the pipeline company turned up on their properties. They wondered why they’d never heard about it in their official capacities. The answer is simple. They have no say in the matter.
So it would seem like those in the path of oil and gas drilling operations overseen by the state dodged a bullet when the Commonwealth Court ruled that the local control exemption in Act 13 was “unenforceable, unconstitutional, null and void”. Not so. The case has not yet been settled and stands to get a lot more complicated if the state has its way. The Public Utilities Commission and the Department of Environmental Protection recently filed a request that the case be reargued before the Supreme Court.
Immediately after the Commonwealth Court’s ruling last summer, the state appealed the case to the state Supreme Court. Opponents of Act 13 were optimistic when it was announced that the case would be heard by a six-member panel. The Supreme Court is a seven-member body, but Joan Orie Melvin had been suspended after being indicted for having staffers do campaign work. A split decision would uphold the lower court’s ruling.
The Supreme Court heard the case last October. Since then, at least one justice has referred to two tied cases still pending and it’s very likely that the Act 13 case is one of them. Even after Joan Orie Melvin was forced to resign her seat on the bench, the court failed to hand down a ruling. In July, Corealle Stevens was sworn in to replace her and now the state is counting on his vote to break the tie in its favor.
The governor and the agencies charged with regulating the oil and gas industry are engaging in a protracted lawsuit on the taxpayer’s dime on behalf of the industry that doesn’t like being regulated. If you thought that your state government existed to represent your best interests, think again.
Karen Feridun, a resident of Kutztown, is founder of Berks Gas Truth, president of the Kutztown Area Democratic Club and holds membership in numerous other groups.