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Bear in the Woods: Environmental Law Blog

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

PennFuture continues to fight irresponsible oil and gas development in Pennsylvania

On Monday, our attorneys filed a brief requesting that the Commonwealth Court uphold a lower court ruling, which would keep an unconventional shale gas well pad out of a residential community in Lycoming County. The Township had issued a conditional use permit that would have allowed the company to put this industrial development in a neighborhood zoned Residential Agricultural. Representing residents of the neighborhood before Common Pleas Court, PennFuture successfully convinced the court to reject the Township’s decision last September. The company and Township appealed that ruling to Commonwealth Court.

As this case moves through the legal system, it represents another opportunity for courts to weigh in on zoning rights, as they pertain to unconventional natural gas drilling, since the Supreme Court’s landmark 2012 decision in Robinson Township v. the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. In Robinson Township, the Supreme Court struck down the legislature’s attempt to override the right of municipalities to designate where these uses could occur, and it did so on the basis that municipalities not only had a right, but a duty to protect citizen's rights under Article I, Sections 1 and 27 of the Pennsylvania Constitution. Article I, Section 1 protects citizens substantive due process rights and Article 1, Section 27 protects the right of the people “to clean air, pure water, and to the preservation of natural, scenic, historic and esthetic values of the environment.”

As unconventional gas drilling expands in Pennsylvania, the question of where and how it should take place continues to be debated. Evidence of unhealthy pollution from increased truck traffic and diesel generators as well as safety concerns have many residents looking to keep drilling at a safe distance from homes, schools and ecologically sensitive areas. As drillers single-mindedly seek profits, it is essential that residents have the ability to protect their health and quality of life in their communities, and zoning is a key part of that process.

Valessa Souter-Kline is western Pennsylvania outreach coordinator for PennFuture and is based in Pittsburgh. She tweets @ValessaSK.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

PennFuture, FracTracker team up on GIS map showing shale gas development on public lands

PennFuture and FracTracker Alliance have created a unique GIS map that enables the public to investigate how shale gas development is changing the face of our public lands. The map shows, in one place:
  • Pennsylvania’s State Forests, Parks and Game Lands;
  • State Forest tracts containing active oil and gas leases;
  • State Forest areas where the oil and gas rights have been “severed” from the surface lands and are owned by third parties;
  • State Forest lands that are to be protected for recreational use under the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund Act;
  • The location of unconventional shale gas wells that have been drilled on State Forest and State Game Lands; and
  • The boundaries of watersheds that contain one or more High Quality or Exceptional Value streams.

    "The Commonwealth's award-winning state parks and state forests are special places that Pennsylvania citizens have long cherished," said John Norbeck, acting president and CEO of PennFuture. "We hope this map will be a useful tool for all Pennsylvanians in planning their recreational, educational and advocacy activities."

    More on this project at our guest post this week on the FracTracker website.

    Mark Szybist is staff attorney for PennFuture and is based in Wilkes-Barre.

Wednesday, February 04, 2015

Permit applications for shale gas wells within one mile of a Washington County school: Withdrawn.

In October 2014, citizens from Mt. Pleasant Township in Washington County reached out to PennFuture for assistance. Range Resources had submitted three conditional use permit applications to the township board for consideration. The permits, if approved, would allow Range to develop three new natural gas well pads and accessory facilities, two of which would join an already existing well pad, placing three within one mile of the Fort Cherry K-12 school campus. PennFuture provided legal counsel at four well-attended public hearings and was preparing testimony for several more when Range abruptly pulled the applications on Tuesday, February 3, citing economic reasons. 

Washington County is a drilling hot spot in Pennsylvania, with wells popping up across all zoned districts, including in county parks, and by homes and schools. Some residents are fed up with this unchecked expansion, which allows gas development anywhere in the township. Several nearby permit violations by Range Resources, along with heavy truck traffic, around-the-clock noise from generators, and bright lights in an otherwise pastoral setting, prompted a group of citizens to ask that the township deny the approvals that would allow these industrial operations in close proximity to homes and schools - and particularly in areas where persons bought homes in reliance on the area being zoned for only residential development.

In addition to quality of life considerations, residents opposed the permits based on concerns related to a growing body of research documenting the health risks associated with the drilling process. Health professionals and parents alike argue that concentrating diesel truck traffic around families and their homes makes no sense. Diesel exhaust is a known carcinogen as well as an air pollutant linked to a variety of respiratory and heart diseases. Studies such as one conducted in 2014 by McKenzie, et al. revealed that pregnant mothers living within ten miles of natural gas wells had higher incidences of congenital heart diseases in their children. Furthermore, the risk of certain birth defects was positively correlated with increased well density. 

As research continues to reveal real risks, citizens are beginning to look to their local governments for appropriate zoning restrictions on natural gas drilling. 

Mt. Pleasant Township modified its land use ordinance to allow natural gas development across all zoned districts prior to enactment of the state natural gas law (Act 13). In the recent Robinson Township case, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court struck down those portions of Act 13 that compelled local municipalities to allow natural gas development across all zoned districts. Mt. Pleasant Township is now in the process of revising its land use ordinance.

In deciding where to permit drilling and where to restrict it, Mt. Pleasant Township faces the same challenge as many municipalities around Pennsylvania: how to strike a balance between shale gas development and protection of the environment and the public’s health and safety. When ruling on components of Act 13 pertaining to local zoning, as set forth in Robinson Township, the Supreme Court made it clear that municipalities cannot allow non-conforming uses in residentially zoned districts – and it goes without saying that shale gas development is not a residential land use.

Valessa Souter-Kline is western Pennsylvania outreach coordinator for PennFuture and is based in Pittsburgh. She tweets @ValessaSK.