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Pennsylvania Court Dismisses Landowner Lawsuit Against Fracking Opponents

A Western Pennsylvania common pleas court has dismissed a landowner lawsuit filed against two environmental organizations and local residents for their efforts to oppose oil and gas development.

The lawsuit was filed over the summer by a dozen landowners and a real estate developer with land under lease to Rex Energy Corp. in Butler County (see Shale Daily, June 5). It alleged that the environmental groups and residents had engaged in a "scorched earth campaign," making false statements against Rex's development plans for the area and interfering with their contractual rights that caused financial hardship.

An American Civil Liberties Union attorney had argued that the lawsuit was a "SLAPP" action, or a strategic lawsuit against public participation, which violated the constitutional rights of the Delaware Riverkeeper Network, the Clean Air Council and a group of residents that is challenging Rex's plans to drill for natural gas less than a mile from a school. The Butler County Common Pleas Court dismissed the lawsuit, ruling that it failed to provide facts for its argument against the plaintiffs.

The residents and the environmental groups -- both headquartered on the other side of the state -- filed a challenge against Middlesex 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 rejected the environmental group's appeal and Rex, which was not involved in the dismissed lawsuit, pledged to resume operations. The environmental groups have filed a court appeal against the township's zoning ordinance, which is currently pending before the Butler County Common Pleas Court.

The leaseholders had filed their lawsuit claiming that the opposition had delayed development and prevented them from earning royalties from their properties. It had sought hundreds of thousands of dollars in damages and penalties. The court ruled that the complaint was devoid of specifics and failed to prove allegations against the plaintiffs.

Rex's plans for a five-well pad near the school remain on hold after a judge issued a stay on the township's zoning ordinance. Rex already operates two pads near other schools in Butler County, where the bulk of its leasehold is located. It's unclear if the landowners plan to file an appeal to the dismissal. 

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