When the Pennsylvania General Assembly passed Act 13, its omnibus Marcellus Shale law, in February, it marked the end of three years of legislative wrangling and the beginning of a period of legal interpretation.
The environmental group Citizens for Pennsylvania's Future (PennFuture) released a 24-page report Monday translating the 174-page law into "plain language" as a free public resource (see Shale Daily, Feb. 15). The project attempts to be "as unbiased as possible," according to President George Jugovic Jr. "I wanted this particular piece to be useful by legislators as well as citizens, by advocates on either side of the issue," he said.
The report is unlikely to resolve any major conflicts over what the law does, though.
For example, the PennFuture report notes that Act 13 gives doctors access to information about proprietary chemicals used in the drilling process in the case of an emergency, but prevents them from disseminating that information. While some medical professionals have called that a "gag order," industry and even some environmental groups believe it gives doctors the information they need (see Shale Daily, April 16).
"If there is a medical emergency and they treat someone with [the confidential information], they can't then share that information with colleagues. They cannot share that information with the public," Jugovic said.
But Pennsylvania Medical Society President Marilyn Heine called the disclosure law "as strong as any in the nation." When it asked the administration of Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett to clarify what doctors could disclose, it said Pennsylvania Department of Health Secretary Eli Avila claimed "the information can be utilized in whatever manner is necessary to respond to the 'medical needs asserted' by the health care professional."
When the PennFuture legal staff began the project in February, Jugovic said they quickly realized that "there was extensive misinformation, even from some of the persons who voted on the law, about what it contained."
Asked for examples, Jugovic said claims that Act 13 increases setbacks aren't entirely accurate, because the law requires buffers from perennial streams but not intermittent streams. Additionally, he said, claims that the law requires cradle to grave tracking of wastewater fluids rarely also note that the information won't become public unless the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) first requests it from an operator.
PennFuture is not the only group to translate Act 13.
The law firm Babst-Callahan publishes regular reports on natural gas law in Pennsylvania, including an updated version that considers Act 13. The Pennsylvania Environmental Council recently compared the law to its own recommendations as a way to propose additional legislation needed in the state (see Shale Daily, March 30).
PennFuture believes Act 13 is unambiguous about what Pennsylvania lawmakers intended, according to Jugovic. "I think the interesting thing going forward is not what decisions were made, but were they the right decisions," he said, noting that the organization is in the process of creating its legislative policy guidelines, a document that would outline "what parts of this law should be improved and how should they be improved."