Ruling gives towns power over drillers
Published: August 23, 2010

By Elizabeth Skrapits

Would local officials be powerless to stop a natural gas company from
drilling a natural gas well in the middle of a housing development?

Not according to a new state court ruling, which affirms the right of
municipal and county officials to limit natural gas drilling to certain
districts, such as agricultural, mining or manufacturing, and out of
residential neighborhoods.

Three new court decisions were outlined by attorney Jeffrey Malak during a
recent meeting of the Back Mountain Community Partnership in Luzerne

The latest decision, Penneco Oil Co. Inc. v. the County of Fayette,
"...opens up the floodgates and says municipal zoning is not pre-empted"
by the state Oil and Gas Act, Mr. Malak said. The case was decided in
Commonwealth Court on July 22.

Traditionally, local officials have limited say when it comes to natural
gas drilling. Technical aspects, such as what kind of materials to use and
how the well is drilled, are governed by the state Oil and Gas Act. But
local officials are gaining more and more say in where wells can be

Two previous cases, Huntley & Huntley v. Oakmont Borough and Range
Resources v. Salem Twp. (Westmoreland County) set precedents allowing
local officials some leeway in regulating where natural gas companies can

Now the Penneco Oil Co. Inc. v. the County of Fayette decision says the
state Oil & Gas Act does not trump local zoning ordinances, and that local
officials can take steps to protect the residential character of
neighborhoods, Mr. Malak said.

In the case, Penneco, Range Resources Appalachia LLC and the Independent
Oil and Gas Association of Pennsylvania took Fayette County office of
planning, zoning and community development to court, saying it did not
have to follow the county's zoning ordinance because the state Oil and Gas
Act made it invalid. The court ruled in favor of the county.

The Penneco case allows that gas wells cannot be located within the flight
path of an airport runway; that they must be at least 200 feet from a
residential dwelling; and that officials can require fencing and shrubs
around the well site. It also allows zoning hearing boards to impose any
other provisions to protect the health, safety and welfare of residents.

Mr. Malak also said local officials can require a land development plan
from natural gas companies, and they can require special exceptions,
meaning there has to be a hearing in front of the zoning hearing board to
grant permission and to impose any standard planning and zoning fees, in
response to another question.

But, he said, there are still aspects of natural gas drilling that will
have to be decided in court, such as whether there can be restrictions on
hours drillers can operate and whether they can be barred from using roads
at certain times.

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