Court tosses Pa. limitations on shale drilling

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HARRISBURG, Pa. -- A Pennsylvania appellate court panel yesterday struck down provisions in a new law regulating the state's booming natural gas industry that opponents said would leave municipalities defenseless to protect homeowners, parks and schools from being surrounded by drilling sites or waste pits.

The decision was a defeat for Gov. Tom Corbett and the natural gas industry, which had long sought the limitations, and the governor's office said an appeal to the State Supreme Court is likely.

The state Commonwealth Court ruled 4-3 in a decision released yesterday that the limitations in the so-called Act 13 violated the state constitution. The opinion's author, President Judge Dan Pellegrini, said the provisions upended the municipal zoning rules that had previously been followed by other property owners, unfairly exposing them to harm.

Seven municipalities had sued over the sweeping, 5-month-old law, saying it unconstitutionally takes away the power to control property from towns and landowners for the benefit of the oil and gas industry.

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"This is a wonderful victory for local government, a recognition that local municipal officials have a valid interest in protecting the property of their citizens," said Jordan Yeager, one of the lawyers who argued on behalf of the municipalities.

Among the most objectionable provisions towns cited were requirements that drilling, aka fracking, waste pits and pipelines be allowed in all zoning districts, including residential ones, if certain buffers are observed.

The natural gas industry has invested billions of dollars in Pennsylvania to exploit the Marcellus Shale formation, the nation's largest-known natural gas reservoir.

Fracking also is a major issue in New York State, where the Department of Environmental Conservation is expected to release later this summer regulations on how and where it can take place.

Corbett, viewed as an industry ally, said in a statement, "We will vigorously defend this law."

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