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Enviro Group Wants Pennsylvania Court to Reconsider State Forest Drilling Ruling

A Pennsylvania environmental group is asking the Commonwealth Court to reconsider a decision it made earlier this month allowing the state to lease forest and park land it owns for oil and gas drilling. 

Last year, the Pennsylvania Environmental Defense Foundation (PEDF) filed a lawsuit against an executive order issued by former Republican Gov.Tom Corbett reversing a moratorium on subsurface leases on state-owned land (see Shale Daily, July 21, 2014).  The court issued an opinion earlier this month determining that the state could conduct oil and gas lease sales and use that revenue for the state budget rather than for the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR) and a special fund for conservation (see Shale Daily, Jan. 8).

The PEDF is now asking the court to reconsider its ruling, saying that critical facts and state law was "either overlooked or misapprehended." The organization said it was still planning to file an appeal with the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, but it added that it "wants to give the Commonwealth Court a chance to correct the record of their opinion" before that appeal is filed.

Corbett issued the order in May as part of his budget for this fiscal year and later signed legislation authorizing the transfer of money from the state's Oil and Gas Lease Fund, which is earmarked under a 1955 law for conservation uses (see Shale Daily, May 23, 2014). Corbett said the new subsurface leases in state parks and forests would help generate an additional $95 million and help to balance the state budget.

The effort to lease more land stalled after PEDF filed its lawsuit. The organization argues that Corbett and the General Assembly violated the state constitution by directing DCNR to lease state land for the purpose of generating revenue for the state budget. In particular, the group claimed that Corbett and legislators -- as trustees of the state -- had violated Article I, Section 27, a rare environmental rights amendment that provides for people's right to clean air, pure water and natural scenery.

While the court acknowledged lawmakers’ role in protecting the state's natural resources, it also said elected officials are responsible for funding state operations. Its opinion also reaffirmed that it is DCNR's task alone to initiate and lease state land, not the governor's. At the time, sources said that aspect of the ruling could create additional legal challenges for Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf, who took office Tuesday, if he elects to issue an executive order reversing Corbett's. Wolf has indicated that he's not in favor of drilling on public lands.

PEDF said the court overlooked the plain language of Article I, Section 27 and is asking it to strictly review its arguments that the state failed to consider the environmental impacts of additional leases and wrongfully authorized those funds for the general budget instead of conservation.

"The court overlooked the need for the respondents to evaluate the harm to the public natural resources, as well as the harm to the people's rights under Article I, Section 27 so those harms could be balanced against the benefits that the respondents allege justify such harms," the PEDF said in its application referring to Corbett and lawmakers. "The court has the duty to review that balancing."

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