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Bear in the Woods: Environmental Law Blog

Wednesday, January 08, 2014

Corbett administration asks Pennsylvania Supreme Court to reconsider Act 13 decision

On January 2, attorneys representing the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) and the Public Utility Commission (PUC) asked the Pennsylvania Supreme Court to revisit its December 19, 2013 decision that declared portions of Act 13 unconstitutional. A plurality of three justices based their decision on the "Environmental Rights Amendment" to the Pennsylvania Constitution, finding that several provisions of Pennsylvania’s natural gas drilling law known as Act 13 violated both the environmental rights of citizens and the Commonwealth's obligations as a trustee of public natural resources under the Amendment. A fourth justice voted to invalidate the same provisions of Act 13 as a violation of the constitutional right to due process.

DEP and the PUC claim that the Court made two fundamental errors. First, they argue that the plurality opinion improperly made factual determinations on appeal that are essential to the Court's ruling. Asserting that such factual determinations properly may be made only after the presentation of evidence at trial, they ask the Supreme Court to remand those portions of the case to allow the Commonwealth Court to receive evidence, make factual determinations, and apply the legal principles articulated in the Supreme Court’s decision.

DEP and the PUC also argue that the Supreme Court erred when it ruled that certain provisions of Act 13 concerning protection of public resources, while not invalid in themselves, cannot be applied by DEP because they are inextricable from one of the provisions found unconstitutional, which establishes setbacks from streams and wetlands, and the (unconstitutional) process for obtaining waivers of the setback requirements. The agencies claim that the Court should allow implementation of the public resource provisions to go forward because they are separable from the invalidated setback/waiver provisions.

Under the Rules of Appellate Procedure, answers to the application for reconsideration must be filed within 14 days. Although there is no requirement to file an answer, the municipalities, environmental group, and individuals who brought the case are likely to do so.

Mike Helbing is a staff attorney for PennFuture and is based in Philadelphia.

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