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Pennsylvania State Judge Delays State Oil Exploration Law

A Pennsylvania judge delayed for 120 days a new state law shifting control of oil and gas exploration sites, saying localities needed time to adjust to the change.

The measure, signed by Governor Tom Corbett on Feb. 14, shifted control of oil and gas exploration sites to the state from municipalities. It was part of the so-called Marcellus Shale bill, named after a geologic formation believed to hold more natural gas than that of any other state. The law was to have taken effect on April 14.

Judge Keith Quigley of the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania today blocked implementation of parts of the law, a ruling sought by six townships, a borough and an environmental advocacy group, the Delaware Riverkeeper Network.

“Preexisting ordinances must remain in effect,” Quigley said in a decision finding that the state’s municipalities hadn’t been afforded enough time to pass appropriate zoning laws.

Other parts of the new law will take effect, meaning the oil and gas industry may continue to develop sites, said Quigley.

When signing the legislation, Corbett said it was the first comprehensive rewrite of Pennsylvania’s oil and gas laws since 1984. The new measures increase by 200 feet well set-back distances from bodies of water and enhance rules for hydraulic fracturing disclosure.

Eric Shirk, a spokesman for the governor, said the state is reviewing the judge’s ruling.

The judge ’’granted the exact relief that we sought,’’ John Smith, a lawyer for two municipalities, said in a telephone interview. Without the ruling, some municipalities might have had no applicable zoning laws in effect, said Smith, a partner in Southpointe, Pennsylvania-based Smith Butz.

Maya Van Rossum, an official with the Delaware Riverkeeper Network, called Quigley’s decision “very positive.” Without today’s injunction, municipal controls would have been “ripped away” by the new law in three days, she said in a telephone interview.

“It sends a strong message that municipalities need to be treated fairly in this process,” she said.

The case is Robinson Township v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, 284 M.D. 2012, Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania (Harrisburg).

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