Friday, October 23, 2020

PEDF: Court Decision Approves Diverting $110 Million In Drilling Revenue From State Forest Land To Pay DCNR Operating Costs, Ignoring PA Supreme Court Decision

On October 22, Commonwealth Court
issued a decision approving the diversion of $110 million from DCNR's Oil and Gas Fund in FY 2017-18 and 2019 to pay the operating expenses of the agency instead of using it for conservation purposes and projects in clear violation of a 2017 PA Supreme Court decision, according to the PA Environmental Defense Foundation.

The Court also approved the repeal of the 1949 law establishing DCNR's Oil and Gas Lease Fund which mandated use of the funds for conservation purposes.

PEDF petitioned the Court to find the FY 2017-18 appropriation of $61.2 million and $48.7 million in 2019 from the Oil and Gas Lease Fund for DCNR’s operations, and the repeal of the Lease Fund Act, a violation of the Environmental Rights Amendment to the state's constitution.

"The Commonwealth Court’s decision flies in the face of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s landmark Opinion of June 20, 2017," said John Childe, attorney for PEDF. "In that Opinion the Supreme Court specifically found that appropriating money for DCNR’s operations from leasing our State Forest for oil and gas extraction violates Article I Section 27.

"The 2017-2018 Appropriation was approved by Gov. Wolf just months after the Supreme Court Opinion was issued," said Childe.  "The Governor and the General assembly simply ignored the clear findings of the Supreme Court. So too has the Commonwealth Court in yesterday’s Opinion.

"Upholding the repeal of the 1955 Oil and Gas Lease Fund Act has completely striped the protection of our State Forest from the continued extraction of oil and natural gas for revenue for the Commonwealth," explained Childe.  "The Lease Fund Act had, for the past 65 years, limited the extraction and provided protection of our State Forest by requiring that all the money from the leasing and extraction must be used only by DCNR for the conservation of the resources. 

"In repealing the Lease Fund Act the Respondents gave all authority for the future distribution of the funds from the oil and gas extraction to the legislature to be appropriated as they see fit," said Childe.  "Yesterday’s Opinion erred by finding that the Respondents Gov. Wolf and the Commonwealth, did not have to apply the funds from the extraction of oil and gas on State Forest land to restore the damage that has been caused to the forest and will continue to cause for the next 50 years by that extraction. 

"In their 2017 Opinion the Supreme Court determined that the Commonwealth, including Gov. Wolf, has the fiduciary duty as trustee of the public trust under Article I Section 27, to restore the degradation and depletion of the natural resources in our State Parks and Forests. 

"Instead, the Court granted approval for the Governor and the legislature to use the money from the State Forest for any other environmental project in Pennsylvania. The court further determined that any other agency of the state could use those funds. 

"This Opinion opens the door for our Governor and our State legislature to use our State Forest as a “cash cow,” without any constitutional protection," said Childe.

Childe said PEDF will appeal the Commonwealth Court Opinion to the PA Supreme Court. 

Click Here for a copy of the ruling.

Continuing Legal Battle

This case is part of a continuing legal battle being waged by the PA Environmental Defense Foundation to uphold the 2017 PA Supreme Court Environmental Rights Amendment decision.

In May, the PA Supreme Court granted a request for oral argument on another appeal of another Commonwealth Court case on similar issues in July of 2019 where PEDF said Commonwealth Court ignored the 2017 PA Supreme Court decision.  Read more here.

For more information on this case, visit the PA Environmental Defense Foundation website.

Related Articles:

-- PA Environmental Defense Foundation Submits Brief Continuing Legal Battle To Have DCNR Drilling Revenue Returned To Benefit Conservation

-- PA Supreme Court Grants PA Environmental Defense Foundation Request For Oral Argument In Challenge To State Forest Drilling Revenue Transfers

[Posted: October 23, 2020]  PA Environment Digest

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