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State supreme court rejects appeal of ruling striking down parts of gas law

| Friday, Feb. 21, 2014, 4:48 p.m.

Pennsylvania's Supreme Court said on Friday that it won't reconsider a ruling that deems unconstitutional portions of a state law regulating natural gas drilling.

The Supreme Court denied a request by Gov. Tom Corbett's administration to vacate its Dec. 19 decision, which said new industry-friendly rules violate the state Constitution, including a provision that takes drilling-related zoning decisions out of the hands of local government.

“This is certainly a victory for all local governments,” said Deron Gabriel, a commissioner in South Fayette, one of seven municipalities that challenged the state law known as Act 13.

A lawyer for the governor said the administration is “disappointed.”

“Not only has the court set aside several critical environmental protections championed by both Gov. Corbett and the General Assembly, they have infringed upon a fact-finding role that they have always held was not their role to invade,” James Schultz said in a prepared statement.

In the court's original decision, three Supreme Court justices said the law's restrictions don't sufficiently protect the environment and people's health and safety. A fourth justice said the law violates due-process rights of municipalities to carry out community planning.

Louis D. D'Amico, president and executive director of the Pennsylvania Independent Oil and Gas Association, predicted the Supreme Court's decision would “have a chilling effect on drilling in Pennsylvania.”

Marcellus Shale Coalition President Dave Spigelmyer said the industry would “continue to work collaboratively with the communities in which we operate, as well as with regulators and elected officials, to make certain that we have predictable and workable policies in place (that are) aimed at maximizing the benefits of natural gas for all while protecting our environment.”

Several issues were remanded to Commonwealth Court, including whether other parts of the law that were not invalidated can remain in effect. They include the establishment of a so-called impact fee that has generated hundreds of millions of dollars for governments to use for work such as road repairs and other infrastructure needs.

“We hope to get this unconstitutional law thrown out,” said Jonathan Kamin, one of three attorneys representing the communities.

But Gabriel noted: “We didn't challenge the fee. There are still impacts on communities wherever drilling occurs, so why shouldn't communities be compensated?”

Tom Fontaine is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7847 or tfontaine@tribweb.com.

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