Local governments all over the country are trying stop the surge in oil and gas development by embracing a novel legal tactic–community-based rights ordinances. It’s a strategy that carries risks.
In rural Conestoga Township, Lancaster County concerned residents want to stop a $3 billion interstate gas pipeline from coming through their community. Oklahoma-based Williams Partners Atlantic Sunrise project is one many proposed pipelines in Pennsylvania facing intense opposition. If approved, it would cut through 10 counties and carry Marcellus Shale gas as far south as Alabama.
As Williams prepares its formal application for federal regulators, Conestoga Township residents are fighting for more local control.
“A direct challenge to existing law”
Conestoga resident Kim Kann fears her wooded lot will never be the same. As she looks out at the trees and horse paddock, she worries. Although she opposes the Atlantic Sunrise project, her land could be taken by eminent domain.
“We’ve used the land for horses and had goats over the years,” she says. “The kids 4-wheel and camp–all the things we thought they’d be able to do forever on a property like this.”
She knows the community rights ordinance is a long shot, because pipelines like this one are regulated by the federal government.
“We are pursuing it as a direct challenge to existing law.”
Late last year Conestoga Township’s supervisors unanimously rejected an ordinance to ban the pipeline. Their solicitor called it “ineffective” and “unenforceable.”
Many similar ordinances have been spearhead by a Franklin County-based nonprofit called the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF). They work with communities around the country. It’s part of a broader effort to fight corporate power and the notion of corporate personhood.
“It’s not a fracking problem. It’s a democracy problem,” says CELDF organizer Chad Nicholson. “The people most affected are not the ones that have the power to make decisions about how and when the activity takes place.”
In 2010 CELDF helped Pittsburgh become the first major U.S city to ban fracking. But it was a largely symbolic move that was never legally challenged, since no one wants to frack downtown Pittsburgh.
“Their approach doesn’t win cases”