On Nov. 17, the Pittsburgh City Council unanimously passed an ordinance banning natural gas extraction within city limits
, becoming the first city in the country to take such a strong stand against fracking. While certainly a victory for city residents and environmentalists alike, the far-reaching consequences of the way in which the council banned corporate drilling is what really makes this is a "first-in-the-nation" ordinance.
The ban, initially drafted by the nonprofit Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund
, goes further than simply restricting natural gas extraction from the most densely populated region of Pennsylvania's Marcellus shale by effectively stripping corporations of their legal "personhood" status. And if that isn't radical enough, the new ordinance goes as far as to affirm the legal rights of nature
, recognizing nature's intrinsic value over purely economic concerns. This is groundbreaking legislation, albeit in a local ordinance that might ultimately fail to stand up to corporate legal attacks.
So-called corporate "personhood" rights, conferred upon corporations over the last 150 years via multiple Supreme Court cases including the most recent Citizens United case, have long been decried by progressives as undermining the very nature of democracy. By subordinating the rights of communities to corporate interests, such rights have exacerbated social and environmental inequities by ensuring the undue influence of money in local and national decision-making (see 2010 Midterm Elections).
By nullifying corporate "personhood" within Pittsburgh city limits, the council has affirmed this community's ability to decide its own future. Restoring local decision-making power to the hands of citizens, especially in the face of an onslaught of gas drilling corporations leasing land throughout the city, is an empowering act — both legally and symbolically.
Perhaps the more radical aspect of the ordinance affirms the legally binding rights of nature, recalling a debate I once posed on this blog
. Considering that the dominant paradigm in our society is economic growth at all costs, I think this is a profound political and moral statement. Within this framework, the potential economic benefits of drilling for natural gas cannot
outweigh the potential environmental impacts.
Affirming the rights of local communities to govern themselves and maintain access to a healthy environment is a strong statement against the economic-growth logic that pervades most of this country's decision-making. And more specifically, it challenges an under-regulated and overly influential industry that cannot be realistically trusted to voluntarily act in the best interest of all (including nature). Especially given the outdated regulatory framework the gas industry now enjoys, Pittsburgh has asserted its rights to regulate gas drilling in the absence of acceptable state regulations.
It remains to be seen what types of affects this ordinance will ultimately have, and whether or not it will pass the legal challenges sure to come. However, it signals a potential shift in the way environmental and democracy advocates can effect change, overcome the massive barriers imposed by influential and monied special interest groups, and attack the roots of environmental and social problems upheld by our Constitution in ways the Founders never imagined or intended.