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Commonwealth Court rejects appeal on state forest leasing

A drilling rig in the Tioga State Forest.

A drilling rig in the Tioga State Forest.

Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court rejected an appeal by the Pennsylvania Environmental Defense Foundation on Tuesday regarding drilling in state forests. The Court issued its original ruling last month in a case filed by the environmental law firm, which challenged the leasing of public land to natural gas drillers. In an en banc decision on January 7, the court ruled that the state could lease the land, as long as the decisions rested with the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. The Court also upheld the decision by the Corbett administration to divert royalty income from those leases to the general fund. PEDF attorney John Childe has argued that the state constitution, under the environmental rights amendment, grants ownership of the state’s natural resources to the people, not the government. Childe explains this in his appeal:

The plain language of the public trust under Article I § 27 states: “Pennsylvania’s public natural resources are the common property of all the people, including generations yet to come” (emphasis added). The Court overlooked this plain language, which states that the people own the public natural resources, not the Commonwealth. The public natural resources are the corpus of the trust established by Article I § 27. The Commonwealth cannot lease or sell those natural resources, including the natural gas and oil, and take the money out of the public trust to carry out its other responsibilities.

Article I § 27 specifically defines and limits the Commonwealth’s role with regard to public natural resources: “As trustee of those natural resources, the Commonwealth shall conserve and maintain them for the benefit of all the people” (emphasis added). The Commonwealth is constrained to fulfill its duty as trustee under Article I § 27 to conserve and maintain the public natural resources for the benefit of the people in any action it takes to carry out its constitutional or statutory duties. Nothing in Article I § 27 allows the Commonwealth to use the people’s public natural resources to carry out its other duties under the Constitution.

Childe applauded Governor Tom Wolf’s recent decision to place a moratorium on all new drilling leases on state land. But Childe says he plans to take his appeal to the state Supreme Court, in order to force an end to all current and future drilling activity.

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