Pennsylvania officials to appeal ruling on shale drilling law
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The fight over who should control zoning rules for Marcellus Shale drilling moved to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court on Friday, when state officials announced they were appealing a court decision that thwarted attempts to create statewide zoning.
The anticipated announcement came one day after a panel of Commonwealth Court judges ruled that Pennsylvania can't require municipalities to allow drilling in areas where their local zoning rules would prohibit it.
"We very much expected that ... whoever lost would appeal to the state Supreme Court," said David Ball, a councilman from Peters, one of several municipalities that sued to challenge the creation of statewide zoning. "We felt we had a good case. We still believe that much, and the act is unconstitutional."
Act 13, which went into effect five months ago, 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.
Municipalities had about two weeks left to update their own rules to comply with the controversial new law.
Attorneys representing several municipalities -- including Cecil, Peters, South Fayette, Mount Pleasant and Robinson -- argued in court documents that the law was unconstitutional and that the requirements dictating where gas wells and compressor stations must be permitted would harm the communities' abilities to protect the health and safety of their residents.
The Commonwealth Court judges ruled in their favor. Judge Dan Pellegrini wrote in the majority opinion, "If a municipality cannot constitutionally include allowing oil and gas operations, it is no more constitutional just because the Commonwealth requires that it be done."
Attorneys representing the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission and the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection in their appeal on Friday asked the state Supreme Court to review several questions regarding the Commonwealth Court panel's decision.
They asked whether the judges had erred in stating that the seven municipalities and two council members challenging the constitutionality of Act 13 had grounds to do so. They also asked, among other questions, whether the court made an error in declaring parts of the law "unconstitutional, null and void."
Gov. Tom Corbett said in a written statement on Friday that the portions overturned by the Commonwealth Court's decision "endangers the jobs of tens of thousands of Pennsylvanians and deprives citizens of their property rights."
His message was echoed by the Marcellus Shale Coalition, which issued a statement saying it supported the appeal to the state Supreme Court because, "As the governor underscored, bringing certainty to this legal [zoning] process is absolutely critical to job creation, safe energy development and private property rights."
It is hard to predict how the appeal will fare in the Supreme Court. Because Justice Joan Orie Melvin is currently fighting public corruption charges, the state's highest court is divided evenly between three Republicans and three Democrats.
Eric Shirk, a spokesman for Mr. Corbett, said he was unsure whether state officials would seek an expedited timeline for appeal.
First Published July 28, 2012 12:00 am