Tuesday, March 6, 2012

PA Environmental Defense Foundation Sues Over Use Of Drilling Revenues

The PA Environmental Defense Foundation filed suit Tuesday in Commonwealth Court against the Governor, Budget Secretary and State Treasurer alleging they have violated Pennsylvania’s Constitution by failing to protect our State Parks and State Forests for future generations of citizens.
            PEDF originally filed notice of the lawsuit in March 2010.
            The Foundation points to the actions of both Gov. Corbett and former Gov. Rendell by leasing over 64,000 acres of some of the most pristine areas of our State Forest system in 2009 and 2010, contrary to the determination of the agency responsible for the leasing, the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources and in breach of their fiduciary obligations under Article I Section 27; and by diverting hundreds of millions of dollars in gas rents and royalties generated from State Forest leasing away from DCNR, the agency charged with protecting our State Parks and State Forests.
            These rents and royalties are deposited by law into the Oil and Gas Lease Fund. The Oil and Gas Lease Fund was created in 1955, and gave authority to allocate the funds to the DCNR. This Fund was used by Maurice Goddard, then Secretary of Forest and Waters, to build Pennsylvania’s nationally recognized system of State Parks with the goal of having a park within 25 miles of every Pennsylvania citizen.
            Dr. Goddard recognized that the revenue from oil and gas development on state lands was part of the public trust and had to be spent to benefit the park and forest land used to generate the revenue.
            In 2009, in a provision buried in a massive amendment to the Fiscal Code, the respondents under the Rendell Administration took DCNR’s legislative control over the royalties away, and gave to himself and the General Assembly. 
            On the same day, Gov. Rendell approved the transfer of $203 million out of the fund and out of DCNR’s control for protection of State Parks and Forests and into the General Fund to balance the state budget. Less than a year later, he authorized the transfer of another $180 million out of the fund for the same purpose.
            The Foundation also criticizes Gov. Corbett for forcing DCNR to run its day-to-day operations on gas royalties by significantly decreasing the agency’s appropriation from the General Fund and substituting revenue from the Oil and Gas Lease Fund.
            While the state has suffered serious budget challenges in recent years, the Foundation argues that using gas royalties to pay for day-to-day DCNR operations is improper because they are part of the Public Trust under Article I Section 27.
            The Foundation argues that the rents and royalties generated from the leasing of State Forest lands must be available to DCNR to protect State Parks and Forests. DCNR has suffered budget and staffing cuts at the same time it is faced with the enormous challenge of managing Marcellus shale gas drilling on its lands.
            By diverting use of the Oil and Gas Lease Fund away from DCNR’s control, DCNR cannot properly evaluate the cumulative impact of drilling on state lands, acquire gas rights beneath State Parks to protect those parks from gas drilling, or acquire lands to replace those lands no longer available for public enjoyment because of the drilling.
            The Foundation is asking the Court to find that the Respondents have violated Article I Section 27 by the improper leasing and diversion of Funds, and to restore the legacy of the Oil and Gas Lease Fund to DCNR for the benefit of the people of the Commonwealth as guaranteed by our Constitution. The Foundation asserts that doing so is vital to the continued protection of our nationally recognized State Parks and State Forests.
            A copy of the Petition for Review is available online.

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