Pa. officials seek review of Act 13 shale drilling ruling

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HARRISBURG -- State officials are seeking a speedy review by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court of their appeal to a decision last week overturning statewide zoning for shale gas drilling.

That request, outlined in a legal brief filed on Monday, asks the Supreme Court to hear the case during its mid-October session in Pittsburgh.

Attorneys representing the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission and the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection are appealing the decision from a panel of Commonwealth Court judges, who ruled that Pennsylvania can't require municipalities to allow drilling in areas where local zoning rules would prohibit it.

The new law, known as Act 13, was approved five months ago and brought widespread changes to the Marcellus Shale drilling industry in Pennsylvania. It created a per-well annual fee, changed scores of regulations and outlined which parts of the drilling industry can and cannot be regulated by municipalities.

In the new court filing, the attorneys argue that without the law's zoning provision -- which they say was intended to create a uniform, consistent set of rules -- "development of this state's vital oil and gas resources will proceed in a less than 'optimal' fashion."

The attorneys pointed to a decision by Cranberry to forgo updating its drilling ordinance following the Commonwealth Court ruling, and argue that a final decision from the top court is needed to create clarity.

"Until certainty, one way or the other, is established, the Commonwealth risks losing the chance to promote and grow a key economic driver to its fullest potential, perhaps irreparably so," the brief states.

The Pennsylvania Independent Oil and Gas Association echoed that sentiment in a statement Tuesday morning, saying that a final ruling on the zoning provision is needed "to continue with existing plans and establish future development plans in the Commonwealth."

State attorneys also wrote that the seven municipalities -- most located in southwestern Pennsylvania -- should support a speedy hearing because of their earlier requests for a quick legal process.

John Smith, one of the attorneys representing the municipalities challenging the new law, said he and the other lawyers need to discuss the request with their clients, but that he foresees no problem with preparing for an expedited hearing.

"At the end of the day, we would like to have resolution," Mr. Smith said.

Officials from two Bucks County municipalities were joined by South Fayette, Robinson, Cecil, Peters and Mount Pleasant in the lawsuit, which argued that allowing gas wells and compressor stations across all zoning districts as required under the new law would inhibit their abilities to protect the health and safety of residents.

State attorneys defended the law, saying that municipalities are created by the state and the General Assembly has the authority to revise the powers of local governments.

The appellate panel sided with the challengers on the zoning issues, also throwing out a provision that allowed environmental officials to grant waivers regarding the distance between a gas well and a water source.

A final decision in the matter will come from the Supreme Court, which currently is split between three Democrats and three Republicans.

state - marcellusshale

Harrisburg Bureau chief Laura Olson: lolson@post-gazette.com or 717-787-4254.


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