Natural gas industry calls for relying on statewide standards of regulation received a setback when a Pennsylvania court placed a temporary injunction on a new law that limits local control over the industry.

Commonwealth Court Senior Judge Keith Quigley ordered on April 11 that local ordinances over zoning for oil and gas installations must remain in place for the time being, placing a temporary hold on part of Pennsylvania’s new Act 13, a wide-ranging law governing development of the Marcellus Shale, one of America’s biggest natural gas fields.

The measures restrict municipalities’ ability to govern where energy companies site their gas plants, a provision that prompted howls of protest from opponents in the Pennsylvania legislature, and which is being challenged in court as unconstitutional.

The injunction means local regulations will not be preempted by the new state law starting on April 14, as scheduled, but will remain in place until they are challenged.

“The court is of the view that municipalities must have an adequate opportunity to pass zoning laws that comply with Act 13 without the fear or risk that development of oil and gas operations under Act 13 will be inconsistent with later validly passed local zoning ordinances,” Judge Quigley wrote. “For that reason, pre-existing ordinances must remain in effect until or unless challenged pursuant to Act 13 and are found to be invalid.”

The judge also gave municipalities an extra 120 days to amend local ordinances to comply with the act.

Broader Implications Cited

The law’s fate could have reverberations in other states such as Texas that currently allow some measure of local control over the gas industry but may roll back those provisions if the Pennsylvania law holds, according to State Representative Jesse White, a Democrat who opposes the zoning measures.

“It’s an unheard-of usurping of power,” he told Breaking Energy.

But limiting local control will also decrease the influence of people who say without good evidence that gas development is unsafe, argued Michael Lynch, president of Strategic Energy and Economic Research, a Massachusetts-based consultancy.

“The evidence so far suggests pretty strongly that the pollution problems are mostly a problem of misperceptions by the public,” Lynch said.

The law is being challenged in court by seven Pennsylvania municipalities plus Delaware Riverkeeper, an environmental group that opposes gas drilling in the river’s watershed.

They say the law deprives local elected officials of their responsibility to use zoning to protect locations such as homes, schools and hospitals from the effects of industrial plants such as those used by the gas industry.

Compliance Still Coming

The Marcellus Shale Coalition, an industry group, expressed confidence that the zoning provisions will stand. “While it remains very early in the judicial review process, we remain confident that the legal merits of this law – aimed at ensuring the safe and responsible development of clean-burning American natural gas in the Commonwealth – will be recognized and upheld accordingly,” the group said in a statement.

Patrick Henderson, Energy Executive for Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett, a strong supporter of the gas industry, said the injunction only delays the date by which towns and cities will have to comply with the law.

“All this decision means is that municipalities will get an additional 120 days to come into compliance with the zoning provision of the law,” he wrote in an email.

A further hearing on a request by the gas industry to intervene in the lawsuit is set for April 17.