Pa. court tosses drilling zoning limits
BY LAURA LEGERE
Pennsylvania’sCommonwealth Courtstruck down the sections of a new gas drilling law that sharply limited local zoning of Marcellus Shale operations on Thursday.
The 4-3 decision found that a portion of the sweeping revisions of the state’s gas law, known as Act 13, infringed on municipalities’ due process rights by forcing them to allow incompatible land uses – drill rigs and wastewater pits – in zones they had isolated from industrial activity.
The law required municipalities to allow all oil and gas operations in all zoning districts, including residential ones, President Judge Dan Pellegrini wrote for the majority.
In doing so, the law “does not protect the interests of neighboring property owners from harm, alters the character of neighborhoods and makes irrational classifications – irrational because it requires municipalities to allow all zones, drilling operations and impoundments, gas compressor stations, storage and use of explosives in all zoning districts, and applies industrial criteria to restrictions on height of structures, screening and fencing, lighting and noise.”
The court also overturned a portion of the law that would have allowed environmental regulators to waive setback restrictions detailing how far away from wetlands and streams a gas well must be built. The rule is unconstitutional, the panel said, because the Legislature gave the Department of Environmental Protection no guidance as to when to grant a waiver.
Judges Bernard L. McGinley, Bonnie Brigance Leadbetter and Patricia A. McCullough joined the majority opinion written by Judge Pellegrini. Judges P. Kevin Brobson, Robert Simpson and Anne E. Covey dissented to the ruling on the zoning provisions.
Seven municipalities in southwesternPennsylvaniaandBucksCounty, the environmental group the Delaware Riverkeeper Network and a doctor challenged the law.
Jordan Yeager, an attorney for two of the municipalities, called the ruling “a great victory for the people ofPennsylvania, for local democracy, for property rights, for our public health and for the clean water supplies on which we all depend.”
A spokesman for the attorney general’s office said that the ruling is under review. The state is expected to appeal the decision.
Act 13, which was adopted in February, rewrote decades-old environmental regulations for natural gas development and imposed an impact fee on gas drawn from shale. The majority of the law remains in effect.
The Marcellus Shale industry and Gov. Tom Corbett pushed for uniform zoning rules to be included in a revised drilling law, arguing that a patchwork of local rules make it difficult for drillers to plan and extract gas efficiently.
“The premise for the General Assembly’s action earlier this year was to provide certainty and predictability that encourages investment and job creation across the Commonwealth,” Marcellus Shale Coalition president Kathryn Klaber said Thursday. “Lack of uniformity has long been an Achilles’ heel forPennsylvaniaand must be resolved” if the state wants to lead in natural gas development.
The dissenting judges supported the idea that Act 13 had met the balance of ensuring “uniform and optimal development of oil and gas resources” without giving “carte blanche to the oil and gas industry to ignore local zoning ordinances and engage in oil and gas operations anywhere it wishes.”
Environmental groups applauded the court’s ruling for restoring some local oversight of the industry.
“This is why we brought Act 13 to the Court – to petition for fairness and to fight off the heavy hand of gas and oil interests who wanted complete and utter control of every corner of every community in the state,” Maya van Rossum, the Delaware Riverkeeper, said.