Environmental group files court challenge to gas leases in Pennsylvania budget

Pennsylvania’‍s budget was only hours old before it ended up in a court case.

The Pennsylvania Environmental Defense Foundation asked the Commonwealth Court on Thursday to declare that the governor violated the state constitution when he signed budget bills that use money from a special conservation fund made up of oil and gas lease payments and royalties on public lands as revenue for the state’‍s general fund.

The budget calls for the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources to raise $95 million for the general fund by signing new leases for natural gas extraction below state parks and forests. Gov. Tom Corbett issued an executive order in May that allows new leases only in cases where they will not create additional long-term disturbances to the surface of the public lands.

The budget also uses oil and gas revenues from current leases on state forests to pay for the majority of DCNR’‍s operating budget for the fiscal year.

For more than 50 years, until 2009, all money raised from drilling in state forests was put into a special fund to be used only for conservation, recreation and flood control projects at the direction of DCNR. Marcellus Shale drilling injected tens of millions of dollars into the fund, dwarfing decades of past income. The Rendell and Corbett administrations and the General Assembly drew down the reserves — and required new leasing — to balance state budgets.

Past and present DCNR officials testified at recent hearings related to the case that they recommended against new leasing while the agency monitors the effects of drilling that is already taking place on public lands.

The Pennsylvania Environmental Defense Foundation wants the court to rule that it is unconstitutional for the state to divert oil and gas revenues away from the fund’‍s conservation purposes.

In a filing added to the two-year-old case on Thursday, the environmental group said Mr. Corbett “violated his duty” as trustee of the state’‍s public natural resources by authorizing new leases and shifting funds from the account with the new budget.

The foundation also asked the court to schedule a conference to discuss its petition to block the state from leasing more land and transferring more money out of the conservation fund until a judge rules on the merits of its case.

Judge P. Kevin Brobson said last month that he would wait to consider the petition for a preliminary injunction until after a final budget was adopted so he would not interfere with ongoing budget negotiations at the time.

In a companion bill to the budget, the General Assembly said that it is “in the best interest of the commonwealth to lease oil and gas rights in state forests and parks” as long as DCNR and the governor require strong protective measures and there is enough money left in the fund for DCNR to carry out its duties.

The legislature declared that “the commonwealth’‍s role as trustee of the public’‍s natural resources is broader and more comprehensive than just conserving” the state parks and forests.

It also said that the conservation fund, known as the Oil and Gas Lease Fund, is not a constitutional trust, an assertion the environmental group is asking the court to reject.

Laura Legere: llegere@post-gazette.com

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