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Ruling on Act 13 won't end fray

| Monday, Dec. 10, 2012, 11:56 p.m.

No matter how the state Supreme Court rules in its review of Pennsylvania's oil and gas laws, lawyers and municipal governments likely will be busy.

Experts predict months more legal maneuvering and maybe more drilling industry pressure on lawmakers after the court rules on Act 13, a decision that could occur any day. Legal fights could result, experts say, whether or not the court rules for the municipalities fighting the state, including five Pittsburgh suburbs.

“I think this may not necessarily be finished when we finally get a decision from the Supreme Court. It's really just a fluid situation,” said Mike Turley, North Huntingdon's assistant manager.

In the spring, South Fayette, Cecil, Peters and Mt. Pleasant and Robinson in Washington County led a group that sued to strike down parts of the law the Legislature passed in February. The case focused on strict limits placed on municipal governments' role in managing where and when drilling can happen.

Commonwealth Court agreed with their arguments in July, ruling 4-3 that Act 13 unconstitutionally forced industrial land-use standards on residential areas. With Republican Justice Joan Orie Melvin suspended, four of the six remaining Supreme Court justices would have to side with the state to overturn that decision and reinstate the law.

If they side with the local governments, there likely will be a flurry of activity from drilling industry lobbyists and lawyers. The industry likely will pressure lawmakers to try again to streamline rules that can differ across the more than 2,000 municipalities.

“Yeah, I think we'll be very busy because that's clearly a need. That's why we pushed hard to have those things addressed and to pass Act 13,” Louis D. D'Amico, executive director of the Pennsylvania Independent Oil and Gas Association. “You won't be finding me at my office very often.”

Drilling companies and their supporters in state government wanted to limit local control and standardize rules because of the potential for such varied local regulations. State and industry leaders saw the limits as a key part of the package.

A decision against the state could lead to a showdown. Republican leaders received some of the biggest campaign donations from drillers. But with three state Senate seats lost in the November election, Republicans probably don't have the votes to pass anything similar, said David E. Hess, a former Department of Environmental Protection secretary who works for a Harrisburg lobbying firm.

“It's going to be that much more difficult, especially considering the outcry after that law passed,” Hess said. “I think it is going to cause a lot of friction because the local ordinances position was something that the industry felt was a must-have. Now with the numbers changed in the Senate, I think they're going to rethink the way they're going to go out and address that issue.”

The Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission could get more work after the ruling, as well, experts said. The state empowered it to determine whether local ordinances meet state law, but the appellate court put such determinations on hold until the Supreme Court addresses larger issues.

Timothy Puko is a staff writer forTrib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7991 or tpuko@tribweb.com.

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