PA Court Overturns Lower Court on Zoning Compressor Plants

A new ruling in Pennsylvania’s Commonwealth Court will have far-reaching implications for municipalities that try to apply zoning regulations to a select part of the drilling process, like compressor stations. Compressor stations are necessary to move gas along pipelines—from the well to a point where the gas can be processed and eventually sold. A three judge panel has just overturned a lower court’s decision on whether or not townships can regulate compressors separately from other drilling activities.

The Commonwealth Court has ruled that the operation of a compressor station falls within the definition of "gas production" as used in a township’s zoning ordinance, and thus cannot be banned by a township in areas where gas production is otherwise permitted.

A three-judge panel led by Judge Mary Hannah Leavitt reversed McKean County Common Pleas Senior Judge William F. Morgan’s ruling, which affirmed an order of the Bradford Township Zoning Hearing Board that held that a compressor station was not a permissible use in the township’s "forest, slope and residential district" despite the fact that oil and gas production is allowed there.

Judge Leavitt said a compressor station was necessary to move gas from the wellhead to a pipeline in order to be carried away from the site, and was therefore a component of "gas production" under the township’s zoning ordinance.

The ordinance allows for "oil and gas production, including equipment necessary to drilling or pumping operations, but not including the construction or alteration of new or existing storage."

"The evidence is uncontroverted that without the compressor station, New Century’s gas at the wellhead is useless, except, perhaps, for flaring and roasting marshmallows," Judge Leavitt said.

Judge Leavitt was joined by Judges P. Kevin Brobson and Renee Cohn Jubelirer.*

Bottom line: If a PA township allows shale gas drilling in a given zoning district (like residential), they can’t then disallow one select aspect of drilling, like compressor stations. It’s all or nothing. That’s what this decision means.

*Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (May 29, 2012) – Pa. Commonwealth Court says compressor stations are essential to production