Exposed: Pennsylvania Act 13 Overturned by Commonwealth Court, Originally an ALEC Model Bill

Fri, 2012-07-27 03:30Steve Horn
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Exposed: Pennsylvania Act 13 Overturned by Commonwealth Court, Originally an ALEC Model Bill

On July 26, the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court** ruled PA Act 13 unconstitutional.*** The bill would have stripped away local zoning laws, eliminated the legal concept of a Home Rule Charter, limited private property rights, and in the process, completely disempowered town, city, municipal and county governments, particularly when it comes to shale gas development.

The Court ruled that Act 13 “…violates substantive due process because it does not protect the interests of neighboring property owners from harm, alters the character of neighborhoods and makes irrational classifications – irrational because it requires municipalities to allow all zones, drilling operations and impoundments, gas compressor stations, storage and use of explosives in all zoning districts, and applies industrial criteria to restrictions on height of structures, screening and fencing, lighting and noise.”

Act 13 – pejoratively referred to as “the Nation's Worst Corporate Giveaway“ by AlterNet reporter Steven Rosenfeld – would have ended local democracy as we know it in Pennsylvania.

“It’s absolutely crushing of local self-government,” Ben Price, project director for the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF), told Rosenfeld. “It’s a complete capitulation of the rights of the people and their right to self-government. They are handing it over to the industry to let them govern us. It is the corporate state. That is how we look at it.”

Where could the idea for such a bill come from in the first place? Rosenfeld pointed to the oil and gas industry in his piece.

That's half of the answer. Pennsylvania is the epicenter of the ongoing fracking boom in the United States, and by and large, is a state seemingly bought off by the oil and gas industry.

The other half of the question left unanswered, though, is who do oil and gas industry lobbyists feed anti-democratic, state-level legislation to?

The answer, in a word: ALEC.

PA Act 13, Originally an ALEC Model Bill 

The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) is in the midst of hosting its 39th Annual Meeting this week in Salt Lake City, Utah. ALEC is appropriately described as an ideologically conservative, Republican Party-centric “corporate bill mill” by the Center for Media and Democracy, the overseer of the ALEC Exposed project. 98 percent of ALEC's funding comes from corporations, according to CMD.

ALEC's meetings bring together corporate lobbyists and state legislators to schmooze, and then vote on what it calls “model bills.” Lobbyists have a “voice and a vote in shaping policy,” CMD explains. They have de facto veto power over whether their prospective bills become “models” that will be distributed to the offices of politicians in statehouses nationwide.

A close examination suggests that an ALEC model bill is quite similar to the recently overturned Act 13. 

It is likely modeled after and inspired by an ALEC bill titled, “An Act Granting the Authority of Rural Counties to Transition to Decentralized Land Use Regulation.” This Act was passed by ALEC's Energy, Environment, and Agriculture Task Force at its Annual Meeting in August 2010 in San Diego, CA

The model bill opens by saying that “…the planning and zoning authority granted to rural counties may encourage land use regulation which is overly centralized, intrusive and politicized.” The model bill's central purpose is to “grant rural counties the legal authority to abandon their planning and zoning authority in order to transition to decentralized land use regulation…”

The key legal substance of the bill reads, “The local law shall require the county to repeal or modify any land use restriction stemming from the county’s exercise of its planning or zoning authority, which prohibits or conditionally restricts the peaceful or highest and best uses of private property…”

In short, like Act 13, this ALEC model bill turns local democractic protections on their head. Act 13, to be fair, is a far meatier bill, running 174 pages in length. What likely happened: Pennsylvania legislators and the oil and gas industry lobbyists they serve took the key concepts found in ALEC's bill, ran with them, and made an even more extreme and specific piece of legislation to strip away Pennsylvania citizens' rights.

There were many shale gas industry lobbyists and those affiliated with like-minded think-tanks in the house for the Dec. 2010 San Diego Energy, Environment, and Agriculture Task Force Meeting where this prospective ALEC model bill became an official ALEC model bill. They included Daren Bakst of the John Locke Foundation (heavily funded by the Kochs), Russel Harding of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy (also heavily funded by the Koch Family Fortune), Kathleen Hartnett White of the Texas Public Policy Foundation (again, heavily funded by the Kochs), Mike McGraw of Occidental Petroleum, and Todd Myers of the Washington Policy Center (a think tank that sits under the umbrella of the Koch Foundation-funded State Policy Network).

A Model That's Been Passed and Proposed Elsewhere

The Act Granting the Authority of Rural Counties to Transition to Decentralized Land Use Regulation model bill has made a tour to statehouses nationwide, popping up in Ohio, Idaho, Colorado, and Texas. The model passed in some states, while failing to pass in others.

Here is a rundown of similar bills that DeSmogBlog has identified so far:

Ohio HB 278

Long before the ALEC model bill was enacted in 2010, Ohio passed a similar bill in 2004, HB 278, which gives exclusive well-permitting, zoning, and regulatory authority to the Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR). Ohio is home to the Utica Shale basin.

Mirroring ALEC's model, HB 278 gives the “…Division of Mineral Resources Management in the Department of Natural Resources…exclusive authority to regulate the permitting, location, and spacing of oil and gas wells in the state..”

Could it be that the ALEC model bill was actually inspired by HB 278? It's very possible, based on recent history.

As was the case with ALEC's hydraulic fracturing chemical fluid “disclosure” model bill (actually rife with loopholes ensuring chemicals will never be disclosed), ALEC adopted legislation passed in the Texas state legislature as its own at its December 2011 conference.

Idaho HB 464 

Idaho's House of Representatives passed HB 464 in February 2012 in a 54-13-3 roll call vote. A month later, the bill passed in the Senate in a 24-10-1 roll call vote. Days later, Republican Gov. Butch Otter signed the bill into law.

Key language from HB 464 reads

It is declared to be in the public interest…to provide for uniformity and consistency in the regulation of the production of oil and gas throughout the state of Idaho…[,] to authorize and to provide for the operations and development of oil and gas properties in such a manner that a greater ultimate recovery of oil and gas may be obtained.  (Snip)

It is the intent of the legislature to occupy the field of the regulation of oil and gas exploration and production with the limited exception of the exercise of planning and zoning authority granted cities and counties…

The Democratic Party State Senate Minority Office was outraged about the bill's passage. 

”[HB] 464 establishes Idaho law governing oil and gas exploration and development including limits to local control over the location of wells, drilling processes, water rights and the injection of waste materials into the ground,” reads a press release by the Idaho State Senate Minority Office. “[HB 464] preempts local land-use planning statute dating back to 1975. Counties will have little input in the permitting process whereby well sites are selected (or restricted) and no role in planning and zoning.”

Sound familiar? Like PA Act 13 and the ALEC model? It should.

Full-scale fracking has yet to take place in Idaho, though the race is on, with Idahoans signing more and more leases with each passing day. Thanks to gas industry lobbyists' use of ALEC's model bill process, the industry will have far fewer hurdles to clear in the state when the race begins. 

Colorado SB 88

The Demoratic Party-controlled Colorado State Senate struck down an ALEC copycat bill, SB 88, in February 2012.

The Bill Summary portion of SB 88 explains the bill concisely, mirroring, once again, PA Act 13 and the ALEC Model Bill: “…the Colorado oil and gas conservation commission has exclusive jurisdiction to regulate oil and gas operations, and local regulation of oil and gas operations is preempted by state law.”

Colorado sits atop the Niobrara Shale basin. Like Pennsylvania, it has seen many cities successfully move to ban fracking, making the goal of a bill of this nature all the more obvious.

From Colorado Springs to Boulder County, cities and counties across Colorado have passed measures against fracking,” Sam Schabacker of Food and Water Watch told the Colorado Independent at the time SB 88 was struck down. “This bill is an attempt by the oil and gas industry to strip local governments of what little power they have to protect their citizens and water resources from the harms posed by fracking.” 

Far from a completed debate, as covered in a June 2012 follow-up story by the Colorado Independent, things are just getting underway on this one in The Centennial State.  

I don’t know where it goes from here. I suspect there is a happy medium and there is a compromise that can be reached,” Democratic Party State Senate President Brandon Shaffer told the Independent. “I also suspect next year additional legislation will come forward on both sides of the spectrum. Ultimately I think the determination will be made based on the composition of each of the chambers. If the Democrats are in control of the House and Senate, there will be more emphasis on local control.”  

Former Sen. Mike Kopp (R) was one of the public sector attendees at the Dec. 2010 Energy, Environment, and Agriculture Task Force Meeting where the ALEC model bill passed. 

Texas HB 3105 and SB 875

In May 2011, TX SB 875 passed almost unanimously. The bill essentially calls for the elimination, in one fell swoop, of the common law of private nuisance in Texas.

SB 875's key operative paragraph explains,

[Entities] subject to an administrative, civil, or criminal action brought under this chapter for nuisance or trespass arising from greenhouse gas emissions [have] an affirmative defense to that action if the person's actions that resulted in the alleged nuisance or trespass were authorized by a rule, permit, order, license, certificate, registration, approval, or other form of authorization issued by the commission or the federal government or an agency of the federal government…

Texas – home to the Barnett Shale basin and the Eagle Ford Shale basin – played a dirty trick here, but what else would one expect from the government of a Petro State?

The ALEC model bill calls for a transition from centralized power by local governments to individual property rights under the common law of private nuisance, a civil suit that allows those whose private property has been damaged to file a legal complaint with proper authorities. Now, under the dictates of SB 875, even these rights have been eviscerated.

Perhaps Texas exemplifies a realization of the oil and gas industries' ideal world: legal rights for no one except themselves.

“This [bill allows] the willful trespass onto private property of chemicals and or nuisances, thus destroying the peaceful enjoyment of private property, which someone may have put their life savings into,” Calvin Tillman, former Mayor of Dish, Texas and one of the stars of Josh Fox's Academy Award-nominated documentary film, “Gasland,” wrote in a letter. “Therefore, private citizens would have no protection for their private property if this amendment was added.”

HB 3105's key language, meanwhile, makes the following illicit (emphases mine): 

the adoption or issuance of an ordinance, rule, regulatory requirement, resolution, policy, guideline, or similar measure…by a municipality that..has effect in the extraterritorial jurisdiction of the municipality, excluding annexation, and that enacts or enforces an ordinance, rule, regulation, or plan that does not impose identical requirements or restrictions in the entire extraterritorial jurisdiction of the municipality…or damages, destroys, impairs, or prohibits development of a mineral interest

This bill, unlike SB 875, never passed, though if it did, it would do basically the same thing as PA Act 13 and the ALEC model. If it ever does pass, however, it would mean that Texans would have literally no legal standing to sue the oil and gas industry for wrongdoing in their state.

ALEC's Bifurcated Attack: Erode Local Democracy, Strip Federal Regs,

Coming full circle, though PA Act 13 was struck down, for now, as constitutional, that doesn't necessarily mean ALEC copycat versions like it won't start popping up in other statehouses nationwide. 

Sleep on this for awhile. There's more to come.

Part two of DeSmog's investigation on ALEC's dirty energy agenda will show that, along with pushing for the erosion of local democracy as we know it today, ALEC has also succeeded in promulgating legislation that would eliminate Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) power to regulate greenhouse gas emissions - another Big Business giveaway of epic proportions.

If anything is clear, it's this: statehouses have become a favorite clearinghouse for polluters to install the “Corporate Playbook” in place of democracy.

Stay tuned for Part Two of DeSmog's investigation, coming soon.

Photo CreditJames Steidl | ShutterStock

**In an earlier version of this post, we mistakenly attributed the court decision to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, though it was a Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court decision. We regret the error.

***Update: On July 27, PA Gov. Tom Corbett (R) announced his Administration would be appealing the PA Commonwealth Court decision to the PA Supreme Court. Further, his Administration has requested an expedited review.

Comments

Heard this on the radio yesterday; National Public Radio had an honest (and hopeful) appraisal of a plan by the town of Marcus Hook, PA. Worth a listen…..

“Marcus Hook, Pa., had been a refinery town for 109 years. But caught in big changes to the world of energy, the plant shut down last winter. Now the community’s young mayor wants to reinvent the community as a hub for the natural gas industry.”

http://www.npr.org/2012/07/26/157444006/pa-town-chases-new-energy-dream-after-oil-bails

This is what is happening out there  in the ‘real’ world. People trying to save jobs, towns trying to survive.

Right?

I mean if that town wants the jobs, well, they can approve everything they want, right?  That’s one mayor who won’t say no.

So really, this bill must be about other towns.  Right?


Why would you need to suspend existing property rights?  And why are you conservatives so set against people having rights?  Hmm?  Got a reasonable answer for that?

Sounds Russian to me.

Good sleuthing re the Pa Act 13 - brought to us by the Cock Brothers 

Go figure

http://blog.shaleshockmedia.org/2012/07/26/home-rule-applies-to-gas-wells-even-in-fracksylvania/

Thanks for sharing Mr. Horn’s views, which are interesting, but a few corrections are appropriate. (I have emailed him but he requires comments to await his verification of commenters’ identities before accepting comments.)

This was not a decision by Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court. The Commonwealth Court is a lower court, and the split decision with a strong dissent means that it will be argued vigorously in the state Supreme Court, with a decision probably in 2013. (This assumes the legislative term does not allow sufficient time for a revision of the law in fall 2012 to fix the several weak points, before the case gets up to the Supreme Court.)

The decision went in favor of the legislature (and thereby favored the fracker industry) on most of the disputed legal claims, so it was not a sweeping repudiation for the legislature, but was tailored to several key problems, well argued by the impacted counties.

The decision does not greatly strengthen local government authority to the extent Mr. Horn claims; but it does just enough to allow continued local controls through upholding comprehensive local zoning powers, a point important in rural eastern Ohio where many townships do not have zoning codes with which fracking could have been fought. At this point in Ohio’s political history, we do not have the critical mass of elected county and city and township officials willing to fight in 2012-2013 against the 2004 Niehaus law.

Ohio’s Niehaus law of 2004 was probably written by the large law firms working for gas lobbyists, tailored to sweep away any Ohio specific authorities, and since Niehaus has no shale gas in his county (Clermont) it is reasonable to believe that he merely put into the Legislative Service Commission inbox for bill drafting the list of bill drafting concepts he was handed. For example, locals can block injection well and other disposal means generically but cannot adopt disposal bans specific to gas and oil waste. (We are taking this generic approach in the city of Cincinnati legislation which has its first hearing next Tuesday morning.)

Much of what he says about ALEC is correct but there is no sign from historical records that ALEC had been involved in the 2004 Ohio drafting.

Thanks for considering these views, which I will pass along to him after comments are allowed on his website.

Prof. Jim O’Reilly

  

Professor O'Reilly:

Thanks much for pointing out this error, which we regret making. We have updated the post as a result. 

Very Best,

Steve Horn

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