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Proposed drilling ban could cost Peters Township

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By Timothy Puko
Thursday, Sept. 29, 2011
 

Judge Paul Pozonsky thinks Peters is going to face multiple lawsuits if its residents vote to ban oil and gas drilling, but he's not sure that should stop them from voting on the proposal.

The Washington County Common Pleas judge yesterday told lawyers and a crowd of nearly 40 that he would try by the end of next week to decide whether the township can vote on a proposed ban of oil and gas operations. He thinks he may not be able to consider the consequences of a ban, only whether the referendum itself could harm the town, he said at a hearing.

"Why should the court not stop the adoption of what would clearly be a piece of illegal legislation?" said Bill Johnson, solicitor for the township, which is challenging its citizens' effort to seek a referendum. "Doesn't that lend itself to voter confusion and unnecessary expenses?"

Several people in the downtown Washington courtroom came from Marcellus Shale Awareness. The volunteer group collected nearly 2,500 signatures for the referendum and is paying expenses for an attorney. Their 95 members need more financial help to defend a ban if it passes, or at least fight for their referendum if the battle continues up to the appellate courts, member Rod Fletcher said.

Residents should be allowed to ban drilling because of state constitutional provisions that give them the right to clean air and water, said their attorney Jules Lobel, a constitutional and international law professor at the University of Pittsburgh. Voting itself certainly doesn't present any harm to Peters, Lobel told the judge.

The problem for township officials is that state courts have ruled that Pennsylvania's Oil and Gas Act effectively prohibits municipal governments from banning drilling. Township officials are arguing against the referendum because, if it passes, they could face lawsuits from companies and landowners who had signed contractors or want to negotiate contracts for drilling on their land, officials and Pozonsky said.

"That's what everyone expected in Pittsburgh, too, and it didn't happen," Lobel said, referring to a ban City Council passed in November. "And if it does, we'll have an answer for that."

Peters is the first to challenge the legality of these referendums, increasingly being used to deter drilling. Others are pending in Warren and Centre counties, according to the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund, a Franklin County nonprofit that is helping the Peters awareness group.

Judge Pozonsky gave Lobel and Johnson until Monday to submit other evidence or briefs in the case.

County officials need a decision by Oct. 17 in order to print ballots for the Nov. 8 election, their lawyer said in the hearing.

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