A dozen landowners in western Pennsylvania have filed a lawsuit against two environmental organizations from the other side of the state and local residents for their efforts to oppose oil and gas development.

The lawsuit opens up a new rift in an ongoing battle in Butler County, where since last year Rex Energy Corp. has been trying to begin work on a five-well pad in Middlesex Township less than a mile from a school (see Shale Daily, Sept. 18, 2014). The company was forced to suspend its operations between November and May after the Delaware Riverkeeper Network, the Clean Air Council and a group of residents filed a challenge against the township's zoning board for modifying an ordinance that allows drilling in most of the township (see Shale Daily, Nov. 12, 2014; Oct. 13, 2014).

After months of deliberation and public hearings, the township's zoning board recently rejected the environmental group’s appeal and Rex -- which is not involved in the latest lawsuit -- pledged to resume its operations. But an attorney for the environmental groups and residents said they would take their arguments to court and has since filed an appeal in the Butler County Court of Common Pleas.

In their lawsuit, the landowners and a real estate developer with land under lease allege that the environmental groups and residents have engaged in a "scorched earth campaign," making false statements, and they accuse the group of delaying permitting that has led to financial hardship.

"Defendants' activities and actions have caused companies to stop, suspend, or not proceed with activities, drilling and production, resulting in a loss of substantial income to plaintiffs," the lawsuit said.

The landowners also claim that the groups have interfered with their contractual rights and prevented them from earning royalties from their properties. The lawsuit is seeking "hundreds of thousands of dollars" in damages and penalties.

Attorneys for the environmental groups and residents, however, have said the lawsuit resembles a "SLAPP" action, or a Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation, that's often pursued by corporations or other entities to interfere with opposition. They've called it a direct challenge to the defendant's' free speech rights.

In any event, both the zoning appeal and lawsuit could have implications for oil and gas development across the state. Several townships in Pennsylvania are facing similar challenges to drilling permits issued under local residential-agricultural zoning ordinances like the one in Middlesex Township (seeShale Daily, Dec. 1, 2014).

The challenges come after a key ruling in 2013, when the Pennsylvania Supreme Court returned to municipalities their right to change or enforce local zoning laws (see Shale Daily, Dec. 20, 2013). The court also said citizens have a right to "clean air, pure water and the preservation of the natural scenic, historic and esthetic values of the environment" under the state's constitution.