A Pennsylvania appeals court remanded two cases for new hearings on whether a UGI Corp. subsidiary had properly taken the subsurface rights of private landowners by declaring their properties within a buffer zone surrounding an underground gas storage facility. In Carl Hughes v. UGI Storage Co. and John Albrecht v. UGI Storage Co., a Commonwealth Court en banc panel concluded that there needed to be a more thorough evidentiary hearing on how to apply a recent PA Supreme Court decision regarding the right of natural gas companies to use eminent domain to take property for the storage of natural gas.
UGI is attempting to create a 2,980 acre protective buffer around an underground natural gas storage field. UGI an application with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission in 2009 seeking authorization for the storage field and protective buffer. The ultimate approval handed down by FERC for the buffer in October 2010, however, only included areas where the company had a stake in property rights. The regulatory agency left the door open for UGI to file further applications to add areas to the buffer zone, but the opinion said that UGI had not done so. Instead, the court said the company “has used and continues to use the benefit of the complete protective … buffer zone.”
The property owners argued that UGI’s actions constituted an improper taking of their properties, preventing them from leasing their subsurface rights for potential gas drilling activity. A Tioga County judge dismissed their claims and found the landowners had not established that a de facto taking had occurred.
After the trial court’s decision, the PA Supreme Court invalidated a portion of a statute that grants certain natural gas companies the right to use eminent domain to take property for the storage of natural or manufactured case. The Commonwealth Court ruled that the implications of that ruling needed to be taken into account as part of the challenge being pursued by the landowners in Tioga County.