Based on the Environmental Rights Amendment (Article I, Section 27) in Pennsylvania's state constitution — which guarantees its citizens the "right to clean air, pure water, and to the preservation of the natural, scenic, historic and esthetic values of the environment" — on December 19, 2013 the Pennsylvania Supreme Court struck down parts of the state's pro-drilling Act 13 as unconstitutional.
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Act 13, a recent revision to Pennsylvania's Oil and Gas Act, effectively allows natural gas companies to drill anywhere and everywhere, regardless of local zoning laws. Citizens and officials in seven municipalities joined forces with a group of NGOs to challenge the Act's constitutionality. The court agreed, saying: "...at its core, this dispute centers upon an asserted vindication of citizens' rights to quality of life on their properties and in their hometowns, insofar as Act 13 threatens degradation of air and water, and of natural, scenic and esthetic values of the environment, with attendant effects on health, safety and the owners' continued enjoyment of their private property."
The case illustrates how legal recourse empowers individuals and municipalities to fight for their environmental rights and prevent corporate interests from damaging air, water and land or threatening community well-being. It's inspirational for jurisdictions like Canada, where citizens' rights to a healthy environment have yet to be recognized. And it affirms that fundamental constitutional principles hold up against political pressure from wealthy special interests like the fossil-fuel industry.
The ultimate impact of the decision remains to be seen. The State of Pennsylvania maintains that the Supreme Court departed from their historical practice and role by making their own sweeping findings regarding the impact of Act 13; they filed a request for reconsideration, sending the case back to the lower court.
Opponents fear the decision could substantially adversely affect Pennsylvania's economy, because its influence is not limited to the oil and gas sector. But supporters are enthusiastic and confident, maintaining that the Supreme Court properly rooted their decision in the constitutionality of the law.
We northern neighbours will be watching this case closely as we embark on our own journey to ensure every Canadian's right to a healthy environment is legally protected.
Mark Youden is a third-year Common Law student at the University of Ottawa specializing in Environmental Law. Mark is currently completing a student practicum at the David Suzuki Foundation in Vancouver working on the Right to a Healthy Environment campaign.