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Environmental Group Keeps Up Fight to Stop Leases In PA Forests

Just hours after Gov. Tom Corbett signed a $29.1 billion state budget last week (see Shale Daily, July 10), the Pennsylvania Environmental Defense Foundation (PEDF) filed a request with the Commonwealth Court asking a judge to declare the move unconstitutional as part of its two-year effort to stop the administration from leasing public forest land for oil and gas drilling.

The PEDF continued its claim that Corbett, a Republican, has violated his duty to protect state resources. Corbett signed a budget that calls for generating $95 million in revenue with new leases in state parks and forests, and diverts money from the state's Oil and Gas Lease Fund to pay for the day-to-day operations of the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (see Shale Daily, July 1), which oversees state land.

The environmental advocacy group had pledged last month to file the request after the budget was signed. At the time, a judge decided that he could not rule on a preliminary injunction filed by PEDF earlier this year to halt the leasing and revenue proposals until the budget was signed (see Shale Daily, May 30). PEDF had sought the injunction to prevent further leasing in state parks and forests until a  broader lawsuit, filed in 2012, was resolved (see Shale Daily, March 9, 2012).

The lawsuit alleges that both the Corbett administration and the General Assembly have violated state law and the constitution by appropriating money from the Oil and Gas Lease Fund for general purposes. That fund has traditionally been used for conservation efforts, for which it was intended when it was created in 1955. However, in recent years the state has taken to using it for operational purposes.

PEDF's 2012 lawsuit also contends that leasing additional forest land for oil and gas drilling violates Article I, Section 27 of the state's constitution, an environmental rights amendment aimed at protecting the right of all citizens to "clean air, pure water, and the preservation of natural scenic, historic and esthetic values of the environment."

Making good on a promise he made shortly after taking office, Corbett issued an executive order in May that lifted a four-year ban on leasing the subsurface mineral rights in state forests and parks enacted by his predecessor, Democrat Ed Rendell, in 2010 (see Shale Daily, May 23; Oct. 27, 2010). Corbett had hoped to generate $75 million in additional revenue with that proposal (see Shale Daily, Feb. 6), but facing a $1.5 billion deficit the state legislature increased the amount of revenue that could be generated with new leases.

As part of last week's filing, PEDF also asked to schedule a conference with the court on the status of its request for a preliminary injunction.

When the state budget passed earlier this month, environmental groups were critical of its lack of a severance tax on oil and gas production in the state. PEDF's fight to halt additional subsurface leases in state parks and forests comes as the Corbett administration continues to face controversy related to the Marcellus Shale boom in the state.

In December, Article I, Section 27 of the state constitution played a pivotal role in the Pennsylvania Supreme Court's decision to strike down parts of the state's omnibus oil and gas legislation, Act 13, in a ruling that returned to municipalities their right to change or enforce new zoning laws (see Shale Daily, Dec. 20, 2013; Jan. 6).

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