HARRISBURG -- A Commonwealth Court judge said he hopes to rule by Monday on whether the gas-drilling industry and top Republican legislators should be permitted to intervene in a lawsuit challenging the state's new Marcellus Shale law.
Senior Judge Keith Quigley heard arguments this morning from attorneys for both the industry and lawmakers, and opposition from lawyers for the municipal officials who say the law, known as Act 13, is unconstitutional.
Local officials from seven municipalities, along with a Monroeville doctor and members of the Delaware Riverkeepers Network, are suing the state over the shale drilling law, which they hinders their ability to adequately protect residents by restricting how they craft zoning rules for gas drillers.
Hours after last week's initial hearing on the suit, the challengers won a small victory when Judge Quigley granted a 120-day stay to the portion of the law pertaining to local zoning rules. The remainder of the law went into effect on Saturday.
That set the stage for an eventual hearing on the case's broader arguments, in which drilling companies and lawmakers say they have a right to participate.
Drillers stand to lose a predictability and reliability in their business operations that the new law provides by standardizing local zoning rules, argued Walter Bunt, an attorney representing the Pennsylvania Independent Oil and Gas Association, Marcellus Shale Coalition and several drilling companies. He pointed to the leases that have been acquired by companies and could be difficult to develop if they must still navigate a maze of local ordinances.
"This is the most serious and most significant event that [the industry] will encounter with respect to the Marcellus and Utica shale," Mr. Bunt said of the lawsuit. "The key in any business, just like in life, is to be able to predict what's going to happen. That business plan is placed into jeopardy by the Act 13 challenge."
Additionally, an attorney representing Senate President Pro Tem Joe Scarnati, R-Jefferson, and House Speaker Sam Smith, R-Punxsutawney, said the municipal challengers have claimed that lawmakers had certain motives in passing the legislation, and that those involved in drafting the bill should be allowed to respond.
Lawyers for the challengers replied that the question of whether the law is constitutional is one that merits a response from the state attorney general, not from the drilling industry. They also opposed intervention by the GOP lawmakers, which they argued would be duplicative, given that the attorney general's office already is involved.
"[The law] says what it says," said attorney John Smith, who represents several of the southwestern Pennsylvania towns involved in the suit. "We would not call legislators to the stand and say, 'What do you think it says?'"
Harrisburg Bureau Chief Laura Olson: email@example.com or 717-787-4254. First Published April 17, 2012 12:15 PM