HARRISBURG -- Seven municipalities that banded together in recent weeks in opposition to the state's Marcellus Shale gas drilling law filed a suit this afternoon challenging whether the state was authorized to supersede local regulation of gas drilling.
The municipalities -- which include the southwestern towns of Cecil, Peters, South Fayette, Mt. Pleasant and Robinson -- are joined in the suit by a Monroeville doctor, environmental activists from the Delaware Riverkeeper Network and a handful of municipal officials contesting the law in their personal capacities. Two towns in the state's southeast, Yardley and Nockamixon of Bucks County, also signed on to the suit.
The 117-page suit was filed with the Commonwealth Court in Harrisburg this afternoon. It names as defendants Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Michael Krancer, Attorney General Linda Kelly, and Robert Powelson, who chairs the Public Utility Commission.
Mr. Powelson and his fellow PUC officials are tasked under Act 13 -- signed by Gov. Tom Corbett on Feb. 14 -- with determining whether local ordinances governing gas drilling fit into the allowable parameters laid out in the new law.
It sets statewide standards for where wells can be located and related operating provisions, and any ordinances that are more stringent than the state standard can be challenged by drillers.
The suing municipalities argue that standardizing zoning rules for gas drilling is "an improper and arbitrary use of the commonwealth's police power." They claim that towns "will be left to plan around rather than plan for orderly growth" in their communities.
"By crafting a single set of statewide zoning rules applicable to oil and gas drilling throughout the commonwealth, the Pennsylvania General Assembly provided much sought-after predictability for the oil and gas development industry," states the lawsuit.
"However, it did so at the expense of the predictability afforded to petitioners and the citizens of Pennsylvania whose health, safety and welfare, community development objectives, zoning districts, and concerns regarding property values were pushed aside to elevate the interests of out-of-state oil and gas companies and the owners of hydrocarbons underlying each property, who are frequently not the property owners."
The suit points to two recent cases heard by state appellate courts that the petitioners say show protection for local zoning rights in overseeing oil and gas operations. In one 2009 case, brought by driller Huntley & Huntley Inc. against Oakmont Borough and its council, they state that the justices ruled that the state's interests involve "efficient production and utilization of natural resources," while communities are concerned with "land-use control."
Canonsburg attorney John Smith, who is representing Cecil and Robinson in the suit, said the group is seeking an injunction from the court to stop the statute from going into effect on April 14. If that does not occur, they will ask for an expedited hearing to give clarity to the municipalities that will need to change their ordinances.
Harrisburg Bureau Chief Laura Olson: email@example.com or 717-787-4254. First Published March 29, 2012 7:45 PM