The Pennsylvania Supreme Court heard oral arguments Wednesday over challenges to a new law that regulates the state's booming natural gas industry.
Representatives of seven municipalities said the law takes away all power to control gas drilling operations through local zoning.
"It is the role of the court to address whether the legislature went too far," said Jordan Yeager, one of the lawyers representing the municipalities. Opponents claim the new law, known as Act 13, leaves municipalities defenseless to protect homeowners, parks and schools from being surrounded by drilling sites or waste pits.
In July, the state Commonwealth Court ruled 4-3 that the zoning aspects of Act 13 violated the state constitution, and Gov. Tom Corbett's administration appealed. The Supreme Court currently has three Republicans and three Democrats, and cannot overturn a lower court decision on a 3-3 tie vote.
Lawyers representing the Corbett administration said the sweeping, 5-month-old law known as Act 13 is constitutional, and doesn't violate the rights of municipalities or residents. Matthew Haverstick, one of the lawyers representing the state, noted that municipalities are created by the Pennsylvania General Assembly.
"When the general assembly wants to, it can override local zoning," Haverstick said. "I think the analysis stops right there."
But several justices questioned whether the power of the legislature is unlimited.
"Isn't the whole purpose of zoning to protect neighbors?" Justice Max Baer asked. "There's a point where government can go too far."
Justice Thomas Saylor questioned whether the law "could in effect turn private residential communities into industrial zones," and Justice Seamus McCaffery asked "about the constitutional right of the citizenry for quiet enjoyment" of their property.
Haverstick suggested that the high court "must defer to the policy of the legislature," prompting Baer to interrupt and say "I have problems with that."
Jonathan Kamin, another attorney for the municipalities, added that "everyone else has to follow the rules on local zoning," and claimed that "since the 1880s there has not been one industry" that has been given the broad rights granted under Act 13, which allows companies to drill and put waste pits even in residential areas.
The hearing lasted about two hours, and a standing-room only crowd packed the courtroom.
The natural gas industry, which has invested billions of dollars in Pennsylvania to exploit the Marcellus Shale formation, the nation's largest-known natural gas reservoir, had sought the statewide rules. Some companies complained that municipalities, mostly in southwestern Pennsylvania, had tried to use zoning rules to effectively ban drilling.
Wholesale revenues from Marcellus production this year are projected to be in the range of $6 billion to $8 billion, depending on market prices. Landowners get hundreds of millions of dollars in royalty payments out of that total, and the Corbett administration says the industry benefits the entire state by providing jobs and lowering energy costs.
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.