Prove your humanity

The state Supreme Court says it’s unconstitutional to use certain money raised from oil and gas leases in public forests for general government operations.

The decision gives another boost to the commonwealth’s Environmental Rights Amendment.

The Pennsylvania Environmental Defense Foundation (PEDF) has been fighting for years to keep hundreds of millions of dollars generated by oil and gas leases in state forests from going into the state’s general fund.

PEDF argued state lands and the natural gas found there are public natural resources and so money raised from gas leases must be used to conserve those resources – not to balance budgets.

In 2017, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of PEDF, specifically in regard to royalty money. The new decision extends the same principle to bonus, rental, and penalty payments.

John Dernbach, the Commonwealth Professor of Environmental Law and Sustainability at Widener University Commonwealth Law School, has been following the case. He said the decision cements the 2017 ruling and makes clear that the Environmental Rights Amendment is going to govern how decisions are made.

The amendment states Pennsylvania’s public natural resources are the common property of all the people, including generations yet to come. It says the state, as the trustee of those resources, shall conserve and maintain them for the benefit of all the people.

“We are looking at the unfolding of an important constitutional right that has been in the constitution for a long time but has only recently gained judicial recognition,” Dernbach said.

PEDF attorney John Childe claimed bonus and rental payments from state forest leases have totaled more than $500 million over the past decade.

The decision is not retroactive, but applies to revenue going forward.

Governor Tom Wolf’s office says it is reviewing the decision. Wolf issued a moratorium on new drilling in state forests in 2015.

Another case before the Supreme Court will determine if using lease money to fund operations at the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources counts as protecting natural resources, or if money must be used to clean up oil and gas sites. Dernbach said he expects oral arguments this fall.

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This story is produced in partnership with StateImpact Pennsylvania, a collaboration among The Allegheny Front, WPSU, WITF and WHYY to cover the commonwealth's energy economy.