Court sides with towns on gas drilling issue

HARRISBURG – The highest court in Pennsylvania, heart of the country’s natural gas drilling boom, struck down significant portions of a law that limited the power of local governments to determine where the industry can operate – rules the industry sought from Republican Gov. Tom Corbett and lawmakers.

In a 4-2 decision, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled the industry-friendly rules set out by the 2012 law violated the state constitution, primarily by displacing local control over local matters. Seven municipalities had challenged the law that grew out of the state’s need to modernize 20-year-old drilling laws to account for a Marcellus Shale drilling boom made possible by innovations in drilling, most notably hydraulic fracturing.

The process, also called fracking, has drawn widespread criticism from environmentalists and many residents living near drilling operations.

“Few could seriously dispute how remarkable a revolution is worked by this legislation upon the existing zoning regimen in Pennsylvania, including residential zones,” wrote Chief Justice Ron Castille.

He said the law’s rules represented an unprecedented “displacement of prior planning, and derivative expectations, regarding land use, zoning and enjoyment of property.”

The law restricted local municipalities’ ability to control where companies may place rigs, waste pits, pipelines and compressor and processing stations. The new zoning rules have never gone into effect because of court order. A narrowly divided lower court struck them down in 2012, but Corbett appealed, saying lawmakers have clear authority to override local zoning.

Among the objectionable provisions cited by the lawsuit were requirements that the high-impact operations be allowed in every zoning district, including residential areas, as long as certain buffers were observed.

“It’s a tremendous victory for local governments, for local democracy, for public health and for the environment,” said Jordan Yeager, one of the plaintiffs’ lawyers. “It’s a huge, huge victory for the people of Pennsylvania.”

Environmental groups and Democratic lawmakers hailed the ruling, while Corbett, Republican lawmakers and industry groups responded with disappointment.

“We must not allow today’s ruling to send a negative message to job creators and families who depend on the energy industry,” Corbett said, adding he will continue to work to help the energy industry thrive.

The municipalities argued the zoning restrictions ran counter to objectives of protecting the environment, health and safety of people who live there, and three of the six justices agreed. A fourth justice ruled that the law violated the municipalities’ constitutional rights to due process to carry out community planning.