A Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court judge on Wednesday ordered a temporary halt to the sections of Pennsylvania's new Marcellus Shale law that put limits on the power of municipalities to regulate the booming natural gas exploration industry, a victory for the seven municipalities that sued.
However, the Commonwealth Court senior judge, Keith Quigley, suggested that the towns' wider challenge to the constitutionality of the local zoning limitations is questionable, saying in a two-page order that he's not convinced that "the likelihood of success is on the merits is high."
Still, Quigley said municipalities must have an adequate opportunity to pass zoning rules that comply with the eight-week-old law without the fear or risk that the development of oil or gas operations in the meantime will be inconsistent with them.
Quigley ruled several hours after listening to arguments in court for a half-hour and then speaking with lawyers privately in his chambers.
The law's local-zoning provisions had been scheduled to take effect Saturday. The provisions set statewide limits on the extent to which a municipality can regulate the booming Marcellus Shale industry, including well drilling and construction on pipelines and compressor and processing stations.
But lawyers for the seven municipalities argued that allowing the law to take effect Saturday would leave towns temporarily powerless to protect their residents' quality of life and property values, especially if companies promptly seek permits before the towns can rewrite their ordinances to comply with the law.
While the municipalities also are seeking to have the law's local zoning provisions struck down as unconstitutional, they had asked Quigley to allow local zoning ordinances to stand in the short term.
Among the objectionable provisions cited by the towns' March 29 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.
Senior Deputy Attorney General Howard Hopkirk argued that the state created the municipal planning code, and municipalities have no right or standing to complain about perceived harm to its residents if the state pre-empts parts of it.
A spokesman for Governor Tom Corbett has said the administration is confident the law will withstand judicial scrutiny.
Plaintiffs include townships in southwestern Pennsylvania — Robinson, Peters, Cecil and Mount Pleasant in Washington County, and South Fayette in Allegheny County — where exploration of the Marcellus Shale is under way, and Nockamixon Township and Yardley Borough in southeastern Pennsylvania's Bucks County where officials are worried about their inability to control future natural gas exploration.
According to Quigley's order, the 120-day injunction will be followed by another 120-day period under a provision giving municipalities time to figure out if their ordinances are legal. About 125 municipalities had at least one oil and gas ordinance in effect earlier this year, according to the Marcellus Shale Coalition, an industry group.
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.