AP: Drilling law decision leaves unsettled legal landscape

  • Laura Legere

A drill rig rises above a farm in Northeastern Pennsylvania.

Kim Paynter/ WHYY / WHYY/Newsworks.org

A drill rig rises above a farm in Northeastern Pennsylvania.org

The Associated Press looked this weekend at some more of the potential business and legal consequences of the state Supreme Court’s month-old decision to strike down portions of the state’s drilling law.
The court ruled in favor of municipalities who challenged the law’s limits on local zoning of drilling operations. Now business groups whose interests are broader than natural gas drilling worry the decision might give municipalities more control over other kinds of development.

Some wonder whether any industry will ever be able to get the state’s help again in navigating municipalities’ planning and zoning rules.
“It’s a slippery slope here,” said David W. Patti, the president and CEO of the Harrisburg-based Pennsylvania Business Council, whose members include Pennsylvania-American Water, United States Steel, Waste Management and Exelon. “It could be anything. Does this decision say we can’t have any rules at all, and municipalities are the final arbiters of all land use?”

Environmental groups hailed the ruling for giving new legal weight to the environmental rights amendment to the Pennsylvania Constitution, which describes Pennsylvanians’ right to “clean air, pure water, and to the preservation of the natural, scenic, historic and esthetic values of the environment.” Because only three of the four justices in the majority relied on the amendment for their reasoning, it is not clear how closely lower courts will follow their rationale, but groups bringing future environmental legal challenges will likely try to use the argument.
The uncertainty left by the court’s decision is not going to end soon, as a lower court sorts out how much of the rest of the drilling law can stand and lawmakers wait to decide whether to try to rewrite the rules.

For now, [Gov. Tom] Corbett is asking the Supreme Court to reconsider its decision. If it doesn’t, a lengthy process could follow in the lower Commonwealth Court to sort through the ruling’s effect on other elements of the sprawling law.
That process must play out before lawmakers and the Corbett administration decide how or whether to try to assert new limits on municipal planning authority over gas drilling, said J. Andrew Crompton, a lawyer for Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati, R-Jefferson, who helped write and negotiate the gas drilling law.

StateImpact Pennsylvania annotated the ruling here.

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