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Range Resources Claims Local Drilling Ordinance is Illegal

A major Marcellus Shale drilling company is challenging an Allegheny County municipality's decision to restrict drilling. Last month officials in South Fayette Township approved an ordinance that requires drillers to obtain a land operations permit for each well, and it creates buffers around schools, hospitals and certain types of businesses.

Range Resources filed a challenge with the township's zoning hearing board claiming that the restrictions in essence create a ban on drilling. In its challenge, the Fort Worth-based company contends the ordinance is illegal because it says a state law that regulates drilling preempts the local legislation. The company claims it's being "deprived of its legal right to develop its oil and natural gas property interests" on about 4,000 acres it has leased in South Fayette Township.

But Ben Price, projects director of the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund, says the township worked to stay within the land use and zoning law to develop the most protective law they could "and even with that we have challenges," said Price. "The large drilling corporations (are) saying that would interfere with their business plans. The rights of members of the community are apparently secondary to their business plans."

Price's organization has said they would assist the city of Pittsburgh if its ordinance is challenged in court. He says the South Fayette ordinance that limits drilling is much different than Pittsburgh's ban. "These are community bills of rights that are declaring that people living in communities have certain rights that the privileges bestowed on these large corporations by the courts can't trump," said Price. "So it sets up a different kind of legal challenge."

Price says he would not be surprised if a challenge to local drilling ordinances makes its way up to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. In the meantime, legislation has been proposed by Senate President Pro Tem Joe Scarnati that would establish a uniform drilling policy. Municipalities could accept that policy, but if they opt out, they would not receive revenues from any drilling impact fee that might be adopted.