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PUC appeals ruling that curbed its power to review municipalities' drilling rules

| Monday, Aug. 18, 2014, 10:33 p.m.

Regulators want one last shot at convincing the state's high court that they should have some authority over local ordinances aimed at gas drillers.

The state Public Utility Commission asked the Supreme Court to hear its appeal of a lower court ruling last month that curbed the commission's power to review municipal drilling rules. It claims Commonwealth Court erred in deciding that previous rulings on the state gas law known as Act 13 — including a December decision by the Supreme Court — nullify that authority.

“We believe that we are able to review ordinances for compliance” with zoning laws and parts of the gas law that the courts did not overturn, commission spokeswoman Denise McCracken said on Monday.

A lawyer for communities that sued to block that authority said the state is wasting time and money.

“The courts have ruled on this now a couple of times. Each opportunity the courts have had, they've vindicated the central role that zoning plays in protecting property values, in protecting the health and safety of communities,” said Bucks County attorney Jordan Yeager, who helped represent seven communities that sued the state in 2012.

The commission filed its appeal on Thursday. The other parties in the case, which include the communities, an environmental group and other state agencies, have 14 days from that date to file a cross-appeal. Yeager said lawyers are reviewing their options.

Act 13 included uniform land-use and environmental rules, and imposed impact fees that the state collects from well owners and distributes to local governments. It was Pennsylvania's first attempt at managing the rush to drill in the gas-rich shale play that produces nearly 20 percent of the country's natural gas.

The Supreme Court in December declared parts of the law unconstitutional and told Commonwealth Court to decide remaining issues. Most notably, the high court struck down rules limiting local ability to regulate drilling.

The parties — South Fayette, Peters, Cecil and Mt. Pleasant in Washington County, and several state agencies — agreed not to debate the impact fees or most of the environmental rules.

Commonwealth Court's five judges ruled against the challengers on several issues and split on the last zoning question. The majority rejected an argument that the PUC could withhold Act 13 money from municipalities that enacted rules impeding drilling, based on the Supreme Court tossing out other parts of the law.

“Because a condition to receipt of the impact fee funds is compliance with PA law, we are questioning the Commonwealth Court's order that prevents us from doing any sort of review of ordinances,” McCracken said.

The PUC initially withheld impact fee money from communities that passed rules limiting drilling but eventually released it. Well owners have paid the state more than $600 million in impact fees in three years.

Yeager said other companies have to respect local zoning rules and the drilling industry should be no different.

The courts have vindicated the local process of protecting those issues,” he said. “We're confident they will rule the same again.”

David Conti is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-388-5802 or dconti@tribweb.com.

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