Thursday, December 19, 2013

Pa Supreme Court delivers big setback to shale drillers

The natural gas drilling industry and its friends in the Pennsylvania Governor's office and General Assembly were dealt a major setback today when the state's supreme court ruled that municipalities can determine when and where to allow drilling within their boundaries.

"The 4-2 ruling Thursday undoes the state's attempt — passed as Act 13 in February 2012 after years of debate — to create uniform rules and allow drilling in all types of neighborhoods in every municipality statewide. Without those new rules going into effect, municipal governments will be able to block off some, though not all, of their neighborhoods from drilling and subject drillers to reviews before issuing them drilling permits," Pittsburgh Tribune-Review's Business Writer Timothy Puko reports.

South Fayette in Allegheny County and Cecil, Peters, Mt. Pleasant and Robinson in Washington County led the group that sued to strike down the state limits on local control. The municipalities argued that by limiting those powers, the law unconstitutionally barred them from protecting residents and property rights by keeping drilling away from schools, parks and businesses.
The 162-page Supreme Court decision spoke at length of the state's history of environmental degradation, and decreed that the state does not have absolute power over municipalities in terms of environmental protection. Act 13 puts municipalities in direct conflict with their constitutional power to protect the environment, the court said, ruling that the state overstepped its powers by trying to apply uniform rules to all municipalities.
To put it succinctly, our citizens buying homes and raising families in areas zoned residential had a reasonable expectation concerning the environment in which they were living, often for years or even decades,” Chief Justice Castille wrote. “Act 13 fundamentally disrupted those expectations, and ordered local government to take measures to effect the new uses, irrespective of local concerns.”

Read a copy of the ruling here

Act 13 was shepherded through the Legislature by Republican leadership in both houses
and warmly received by GOP Governor Tom Corbett, an drilling industry enthusiast.

What happens now?

Puko writes that the ruling "could trigger a flurry of activity from drilling industry lobbyists and lawyers, experts had said as they awaited the high court's decision. The industry likely will pressure state lawmakers to try again at streamlining rules that can differ across all of the more than 2,000 municipalities in Pennsylvania. With the case settled, there's also the specter of new court challenges."

We'll have a lot more on this story in the days ahead.

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