The Pennsylvania Supreme Court on Thursday struck down portions of a law that stripped some of the powers municipalities have to decide where the natural gas industry can operate — portions that the industry had sought from Gov. Tom Corbett and lawmakers.
The justices ruled the 2012 law unconstitutionally restricted the power of municipalities, although the 4-to-2 majority disagreed as to why it was unconstitutional.
Seven municipalities challenged a law known as Act 13, which restricted local municipalities' ability to control where companies may place rigs, waste pits, pipelines and compressor and processing stations.
Among the objectionable provisions cited by the lawsuit are requirements that drilling, waste pits and pipelines be allowed in every zoning district, including residential districts, as long as certain buffers are observed.
"It's a tremendous victory for local governments, for local democracy, for public health and for the environment," said one of the plaintiffs' lawyers. "It's a huge, huge victory for the people of Pennsylvania."
The booming drilling industry had sought the changes, and Corbett and Republican lawmakers approved them over the objections of Democrats.
A narrowly divided lower court had said the zoning rules ran afoul of the state constitution, but Corbett appealed, saying lawmakers have clear authority to override local zoning.
The municipalities said the zoning restrictions run counter to objectives of protecting the environment, health and safety of people who live there, and three of the six justices agreed. A fourth justice ruled that the law violated the municipalities' constitutional rights to due process.
A lawyer for Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati, R-Jefferson, said the decision is a setback that will reopen the door to legal fights between municipalities and the drilling industry that the Legislature had sought to settle.
Efforts by communities to limit drilling, in some cases imposing an effective ban, drew complaints from the companies.
The law also imposed new safety regulations for drilling and an impact fee tax for areas where the drilling occurs. Through the end of last year the industry had paid out more than $406 million in impact fees.
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