Fracking Industry's New Plan? Prosecute Those Who Push Drilling Bans

Pennsylvanians demonstrate against fracking in their community. (Photo: Elias Schewel/cc/flickr)

Fracking Industry's New Plan? Prosecute Those Who Push Drilling Bans

As communities seek to protect themselves from toxic drilling, Pennsylvania industry group mulls statute to deter such ordinances

"Drained" from taking local municipalities to court over fracking bans, a fossil fuel industry group is now considering charging local officials who suggest such prohibitions with criminal prosecution, new reporting by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazetterevealed Tuesday.

In the face of federal governmental inaction, more and more local municipalities have passed bans on fracking to address the mounting public health and environmental problems caused by the toxic drilling process. In fact, according to the Post-Gazette, since Pittsburgh passed its ordinance in 2010, more than 100 other localities have followed suit.

In Pennsylvania, which is the second largest producer of fracked gas in the nation, as well as elsewhere, the drilling industry has aggressively challenged these bans--but, according to Kevin Moody, general counsel for the Pennsylvania Independent Oil & Gas Association, that "fight is draining and doesn't seem to be deterring municipal officials from attempting to block oil and gas development."

Alternately, Moody told the Post-Gazette that he's been "exploring" the concept of criminal prosecution for years but finally found a fitting statute to test it out.

"It's called official oppression," the newspaper explained, "and makes it a second degree misdemeanor for a public official to deny or impede someone's rights or privileges with the knowledge such actions are illegal. The penalty is up to two years in prison and a fine of up to $5,000."

Moody specifically cited the recent action taken by Grant Township as an "egregious example" that should be challenged. In the face of ongoing litigation over its fracking ban, the Pennsylvania community last spring adopted the country's first municipal charter establishing a local bill of rights codifying environmental and democratic rights.

At the time of its adoption, noted climate activist Tim DeChristopher, called it "one of the boldest moves to stop the natural gas industry's attacks on our communities, climate, and democracy."

But Moody claims that the charter, which was drafted by the Franklin County-based nonprofit Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF), is illegal. If a judge agrees with him, Moody could use that decision "to say municipal officials know what they're doing is not legal when they deny gas companies the right to operate within their borders. From there, other options could surface," such as filing a private criminal complaint against or impeaching local officials, the Post-Gazette reported.

Chad Nicholson, Pennsylvania organizer for CELDF, said the threat of criminal prosecution once again illustrates "the sense of privilege and entitlement" that the fossil fuel industry holds over the communities they try to "bully into submission."

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