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Environmental group asks court to order lawmakers pay back money meant for conservation

  • Rachel McDevitt
A wellpad in the Loyalsock State Forest.

Joe Ulrich / WITF

A wellpad in the Loyalsock State Forest.

An environmental group is hoping to build on earlier court victories to get the state to return more than $1 billion to a conservation fund.

The Pennsylvania Environmental Defense Foundation (PEDF) filed a petition in Commonwealth Court Monday, seeking repayment to the Oil and Gas Lease Fund in compliance with recent Supreme Court rulings.

The high court ruled in July that it’s unconstitutional for lawmakers to use money from lease bonus, rental, and penalty payments for general government operations. That followed a similar decision in 2017 over gas royalties.

Though the court said that money should be returned to the people of Pennsylvania, it didn’t specifically order repayment.

The Oil and Gas Lease Fund was set up in 1955 for revenue from drilling on state land to be “exclusively used for conservation, recreation, dams, or flood control.”

PEDF said since 2009 lawmakers have taken $1.3 billion dollars from the account to pay for other things, including operations at the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR).

PEDF attorney John Childe said state budgets show lawmakers used oil and gas money to fund DCNR while decreasing appropriations from the general fund.

He said money generated by state forests should be used to improve and preserve state forests.

“If they’re allowed to use that money from part of the public trust–our state forests–to improve other public natural resources, we’re going to lose our state forests,” Childe said.

Under the state’s Environmental Rights Amendment, the commonwealth must act as trustee of the state’s natural resources, for current and future generations.

Governor Tom Wolf’s office didn’t respond to a request for comment.

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