Pa. Supreme Court won't revisit gas drilling case

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HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — Pennsylvania's highest court said Friday it would not revisit its decision striking down a state law that took zoning decisions about natural gas drilling out of the hands of local governments.

The state Supreme Court denied a request by Gov. Tom Corbett's administration to vacate its decision and send it back to a lower court for a new round of briefs and fact-finding process.

Instead, five justices left in place the Dec. 19 ruling that new industry-friendly rules violated the state constitution. The sixth, Justice Thomas Saylor, said he would have granted the request for reconsideration made by the Department of Environmental Protection and the Public Utility Commission.

"We're obviously very pleased," said Jordan Yeager, an attorney for the communities and individuals who challenged the law, referred to as Act 13. "The Supreme Court's decision in striking down Act 13 was historic and vital for protecting Pennsylvania's communities. The Corbett administration asked for a do-over and the court said no."

In the December decision, three justices said the restrictions didn't sufficiently protect the environment and the health and safety of people. A fourth justice said the law violated due process rights of municipalities to carry out community planning.

Corbett's general counsel James Schultz said the ruling was disappointing.

"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," he said in a statement released Friday night.

There are still unresolved issues, however, and the case now goes back to Commonwealth Court for additional proceedings.

One question is whether parts of the law that were not invalidated can remain in force, including a tax on drillers that has generated hundreds of millions of dollars. Because a key part of the law is no longer in effect, that could affect the viability of other elements, a legal issue known as severability.

"Our belief is the first issue the Commonwealth Court will address is the severability issue on remand," said administration attorney Matt Haverstick.

The plaintiffs did not seek to have the law thrown out in its entirety, Yeager said, but the lower court will have to delve into a provision that gave doctors information about fracking fluids if they signed a confidentiality agreement that applied to their conversations with patients. Other loose ends relate to notice about pollution for private water supplies and the use of eminent domain.

The 2012 law was developed after companies drilling for natural gas in the Marcellus Shale formation encountered zoning restrictions. Corbett and fellow Republicans who control legislative majorities pushed through the law, which restricted local governments' ability to control the location of rigs, drilling sites, waste pits and processing stations.

The law said drilling would be allowed in every zoning district as long as specified buffers were in place.

The zoning limits never went into place, and Commonwealth Court struck them down the year they were passed. The Corbett administration appealed and lost in December, before trying in vain to persuade the high court to reconsider.

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