Inquirer Editorial: Tapping brakes on gas giveaways

Drilling foreman Dave Dewberry in front of a Seneca Resources rig in Lycoming County this month.
Drilling foreman Dave Dewberry in front of a Seneca Resources rig in Lycoming County this month. (CLEM MURRAY / Staff)
Posted: December 27, 2013

A salient feature of the natural gas embedded beneath Pennsylvania is that it is, well, embedded beneath Pennsylvania. Unfortunately, though, since novel drilling techniques began to enable the extraction of methane from the Marcellus Shale formation, the state's leadership has coddled the industry as if it might easily go the way of the steel mills. Instead of properly taxing and regulating the companies benefiting from an endemic resource, they have pointlessly showered them with giveaways.

Last week, the state Supreme Court corrected one of the most questionable such sops to the industry, striking down a state law that would have exempted gas drillers from local zoning. The court ruled 4-2 that this "drill-everywhere provision," as one lawyer called it, violates the state constitution's environmental safeguards.

Republican legislative leaders and Gov. Corbett, who signed the law last year, argued that drillers could not prosper without uniform statewide zoning, necessitating the preemption of countless local zoning boards. While it's not impossible to imagine the industry's well-funded lobbying operation making that case convincingly, the argument should have been weakened by the fact that mere zoning has not prevented any other industry from doing business in Pennsylvania.

Nor, in fact, has the gas industry itself been hampered by local zoning authority, which has remained intact while the law was being challenged in court. The court's ruling represents at most an inconvenience to the energy companies. It's a matter of preserving municipalities' basic authority to determine the location and manner of industry, not to prevent it altogether.

While debates over gas extraction are often cast as pitting pro-environment liberals against pro-business conservatives, the preemption of a practice as time-honored and locally driven as zoning hardly seems conservative. This was a radical attempt by an alliance of big business and big government to steamroller citizen representatives who would be so bold as to have an opinion about where to locate a major industrial enterprise.

The high court's decision, reached by a coalition of three Democratic justices and the Republican chief justice, Ronald D. Castille, underscores the extent of the law's overreach. Castille wrote that the legislation aimed "to provide a maximally favorable environment for industry operators to exploit Pennsylvania's oil and natural gas resources."

Even in the wake of a ruling that should have chastened them, the governor, legislative leaders, and gas lobbyists persisted in mouthing dire warnings about insufficient friendliness to business. Nonsense. Energy companies are certainly important to the economy, but they don't have to be wooed into taking advantage of rich natural resources. They have to be regulated by the appointed guardians of those resources, our representatives in Harrisburg.

Given that governors and legislators have abdicated that duty of late, the Supreme Court has done the commonwealth a great service by reinvigorating the environmental protections that are wisely enshrined in the Pennsylvania Constitution.

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