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Commonwealth Court takes up issue of drilling in state parks and forests

A sign posted in Susquehannock state forest, which makes up part of the most "climate resilient" land on the East Coast..

Susan Phillips / StateImpact Pennsylvania

A sign posted in Susquehannock state forest, where land has been leased for gas drilling.

The fate of expanded natural gas drilling in Pennsylvania’s parks and forests is now in the hands of seven Commonwealth Court Judges. Governor Tom Corbett wants to lease 25,000 acres of additional state land to drillers in order to raise $95 million to plug a hole in the 2014-2015 fiscal year’s $29.1 billion budget. The Commonwealth’s seven judge panel heard arguments Wednesday from an environmental attorney challenging the Governor’s authority to lease that land, and to use the proceeds for the general fund.
Pennsylvania Environmental Defense Foundation Attorney John Childe says both current Governor Tom Corbett, and former Governor Ed Rendell, violated the state constitution by disregarding the environmental impacts of drilling on state parks and forests.  Childe’s case hinges upon the state constitution’s environmental rights amendment. The environmental rights amendment became relevant for the first time earlier this year when the Supreme Court upheld challenges to the state’s new oil and gas law in Robinson Township v. Commonwealth. Childe says the amendment clearly puts ownership of the state’s parks and forests in the hands of Pennsylvania citizens, not the governor or general assembly.
“The constitution describes basic rights for the people that are not to be impaired by other governmental decisions,” Childe told StateImpact outside the courtroom. “It’s the same as the right to freedom of religion.”
A total of 700,000 acres of state forest land is available to oil and gas drillers. Under the direction of Governor Rendell, the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources leased 132,000 acres. (Not all of the mineral rights are under state control. About 315,000 acres of state forest land lies above natural gas deposits owned by private leaseholders.) The leases occurred despite opposition from DCNR’s leadership. Just before leaving office, Rendell then issued an executive order placing a moratorium on future leases.
Governor Corbett’s plan lifts that moratorium, and for the first time includes plans for the sale of Marcellus Shale leases in state parks. The Administration says the new leases would prohibit any surface disturbance. 
A drill rig rises above the trees in the Tioga State Forest.

A drill rig rises above the trees in the Tioga State Forest.

The Pennsylvania Environmental Defense Foundation filed suit to halt all drilling in state forests back in 2012. The case also challenges how the proceeds from those leases are spent. Before 2009 the royalty money was used exclusively on improving state parks and forests. PEDF attorney John Childe objects to the current practice of using that money for the general fund.
“So the people lose both ways, their land becomes the money cow for the General Assembly and the Governor,” said Childe.
Childe says that when it comes to current leases, he wants the court to rule that any money made from the leased land must be spent preserving and improving state parks and forests.
“The Governor has no independent authority to lease our parks and forests to get money for the general fund,” Childe told StateImpact. “That’s the most important finding that I would like them to make.”
Attorneys for the Commonwealth argued the state constitution does not limit the Governor’s authority when it comes to leasing state parks and forests. Sean Concannon, a lawyer for the Corbett Administration told the court that despite having misgivings about leasing further land, DCNR staff created lease terms that were “very robust” in protecting the environment. Concannon also told the court the state constitution places no restrictions on how oil and gas royalties get spent.

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