For several years, the use of eminent domain by private oil and gas companies has been a point of contention for many Pennsylvania residents. In the wake of property seizures to allow for the construction of oil pipelines and underground gas storage, some have questioned whether these condemnations actually fall within the scope of eminent domain laws. Now, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has issued a ruling that could help curtail some of these condemnations.

For the public good

For private land to be taken under Pennsylvania's eminent domain laws, the land must be used for the public good. In the recent case, the Supreme Court specifically weighed whether land claimed for underground gas storage met this criterion. According to The Washington Post, the court reached the following conclusions:

· The public is not the "primary and paramount" beneficiary of this type of land taking.

· Contrary to prior claims, there is not clear evidence that condemnation and construction of underground storage would contribute to the development of local infrastructure.

· Any positive impacts on local infrastructure would be a secondary effect, rather than a primary goal, of these actions.

Based on these conclusions, the court found that a state law passed in 2012, which allowed oil and gas companies with majority rights to private land to claim the rest of the land for gas storage, was unconstitutional.

New hope for landowners

Before this ruling, it could be difficult for landowners in Pennsylvania to challenge property condemnation by oil and gas companies. As local NPR affiliate State Impact explains, the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission designates these companies as public utilities and issues them "certificates of convenience," which let the companies take land under eminent domain laws. Local courts have ruled that, when oil and gas companies condemn land, they do so based on the PUC's actions.

As a result of this interpretation, private property owners must challenge the PUC's issuance of a certificate in order to halt condemnation proceedings. However, the certificates of convenience often are issued months or even years before a landowner receives notice of his or her land being taken. This effectively precludes property owners from challenging the decision within the prescribed 30-day period.

The Supreme Court ruling could open the door for landowners to use a different approach to contest condemnation proceedings. In recent years, Pennsylvania courts have typically upheld that the taking of land to build oil and gas pipelines serves the public. However, the ruling may support a narrower interpretation of what falls within the public interest.

Obtain legal advice

Eminent domain laws and procedures are highly complex in Pennsylvania, which can make challenging land takings difficult for most property owners. As a result, anyone who has received notice of condemnation by an oil and gas company or another party should consult with an attorney promptly.