Pennsylvania’s high court struck down part of a law aimed at easing natural gas development in the Marcellus shale formation, saying provisions of the measure violate the state’s constitution.
The state Supreme Court ruled 4-2 that Act 13, signed by Gov. Tom Corbett last year, unconstitutionally restricted the power of municipalities to govern gas drilling in their jurisdictions.
The Pennsylvania Constitution guarantees citizens’ rights “to clean air and pure water, and to the preservation of natural, scenic, historic and esthetic values of the environment,” the court concluded. The fracking-regulation statute would empower state officials to “act contrary to this right,” the court’s majority said.
The legislation was the first comprehensive rewrite of Pennsylvania’s oil and gas laws since 1984, Corbett said last year. The new measures, backed by the booming gas industry, set statewide standards for drilling while prohibiting separate local zoning requirements on those companies.
The challenge was closely watched in the industry because Pennsylvania is the fastest-growing natural gas producer and fights over local control have emerged in other states, including New York.
Seven municipalities and the Delaware Riverkeeper Network, an environmental advocacy group, sued to block implementation of the law. They argued the measure usurped their authority without giving time to pass appropriate zoning laws. Critics argued that the law eliminates local zoning and allows industrial operations within feet of residential buildings, hospitals or schools.
Commonwealth Court Judge Keith Quigley sided with the townships in April 2012 and ruled that pre-existing ordinances must remain in effect. He allowed other parts of the law to be enforced.
“Economic development cannot take place at the expense of an unreasonable degradation of the environment,” the Supreme Court said in its ruling.
Pennsylvania is the country’s fastest growing natural gas producer with production up 72 percent in 2012 from a year earlier due to the use of hydraulic fracturing to tap the Marcellus shale, the U.S. Energy Information Administration said this week.
The formation, which lies beneath parts of Pennsylvania, New York, Ohio, Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia, has an estimated 400 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, one of the largest such formations in the world, trade associations have said.
A gas industry group said the decision “represents a missed opportunity to establish a standard set of rules governing the responsible development and operation of shale gas wells in Pennsylvania.” The news release was from Dave Spigelmyer, president of the Marcellus Shale Coalition of Pittsburgh.