Environmental Law Clinic Students Help Win Key Challenge to State Energy Law

Students Support Constitutional Challenge to New Law that Seeks to Override Municipal Land Use Policies

New York, April 13, 2012––Students from Columbia Law School’s Environmental Law Clinic partnered with a team of private attorneys to win an early victory in a constitutional challenge to a recently enacted Pennsylvania law that would allow widespread expansion of hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) across the state.
The statute, commonly referred to as Act 13, strips municipalities of their authority to control local natural gas drilling activities through zoning. Act 13 would permit the construction of natural gas drilling sites and toxic waste water storage facilities within residential neighborhoods, regardless of local land use policies. The law also restricts the disclosure of diagnostic information by health care providers, if the information is deemed proprietary by the natural gas industry.

Judge Keith Quigley of the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court granted a preliminary injunction enjoining key provisions of Act 13, including provisions that override local land use ordinances that impose restrictions on natural gas exploration. The Commonwealth Court order stated, “[T]he Court concludes that there is an immediate and irreparable risk of harm to the municipalities that development of oil and gas operations under Act 13 may be incompatible with later validly passed zoning ordinances.”

Students in the Environmental Law Clinic represent local, regional, and national environmental and community organizations working to solve critical environmental challenges. In this case, the Clinic represents a group of petitioners that includes several Pennsylvania municipalities and the Delaware Riverkeeper Network. 

In the coming months, the Clinic will litigate the merits of the constitutional challenge, seeking a permanent injunction and declaratory relief, arguing that Act 13 is an invalid and unconstitutional exercise of the state’s police power.

"Our clients are particularly vulnerable if this statute goes into effect, and we are working hard to provide some check against a completely irrational policy that was only adopted by Pennsylvania's legislators as a result of intense lobbying by the oil and gas industry,” said Brian Mulhall ’13. “My work on the Act 13 litigation provides a great opportunity to take what I am learning at Columbia Law School and see it translate into real world results.”