Rejecting arguments that oil and gas development on state lands in Pennsylvania in and of itself constitutes a violation of the state’s Environmental Rights Amendment (ERA), the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court dismissed a petition filed by the Pennsylvania Environmental Defense Foundation (PEDF), seeking to ban all such activities on state lands.
The PEDF argued allowing oil and gas development or commercial timber management on state lands violated the ERA. They said statements in the 2016 State Forest Resource Management Plan (SFRMP) describing the necessary steps to protect, conserve, and maintain the Pennsylvania’s state forest and the natural resources contained therein, showed resource development was at odds with environmental protection.
Ecosystem V. Economics
The PEDF contended extraction and sale of oil and gas has caused immediate and long-term degradation to state forest trust assets. The SFRMP must, they argued, focus solely on ecosystem rehabilitation and management, to the exclusion of economic development of the resources, which the management plan does not do.
The PEDF further argued legislation directing royalties, rents, and bonuses generated from leasing of state forest and park lands for oil and gas exploration and extraction be transferred to the General Fund to pay for government operations constituted a separate violation of the ERA.
The PEDF’s complaint says prior to the 2016 SFRMP, the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR) strategic plan was to manage state forest trust assets based on “ecosystem management” under the principle that the state should “hold virgin, surface-minable coal as reserves and should explore and develop other minerals on state forest lands to provide long-term good to citizens only when those activities are consistent with ecosystem management.” The PEDF says DCNR moved away from utilizing “ecological” principles to guide its management decisions in favor of “economic” principles with its SFRMP.
Court Rejects Claims
Commonwealth Court Judge Patricia A. McCullough rejected the PEDF’s claims.
McCullough said the PEDF didn’t give the DCNR a detailed explanation of how the SFRMP failed to uphold the ERA. Such an explanation is required by law before a petition can be filed. In addition, McCullough found the PEDF had not cited any instances in which the DCNR is currently using money from the extraction and sale of oil and gas from state forests for purposes other than “conserving and maintaining the public natural resources of our State Forests, as required.”
“Accordingly, because the Foundation has failed to articulate any imminent injuries occasioned by adoption of the 2016 SFRMP and has failed to anchor its amended petition for review on any particular action taken by DCNR, we must conclude that the matter is not ripe, and no controversy is present that could permit us to enter a declaratory judgment,” McCullough ruled. “Our disposition should not be understood to foreclose the possibility that a claim under the ERA might ripen if DCNR implements its forest resources plan in a manner which violates the ERA.”
McCullough’s dismissal the PEDF’s petition was based in common sense and consistent with long-standing practices and interpretations of the law, says Gordon Tomb, senior fellow at the Commonwealth Foundation.
“Petitioner PEDF had asserted DCNR’s practice of developing timber and natural gas for economic gain was in violation of its charter to manage and rehabilitate forest ecosystems,” Tomb said. “PEDF’s position represents an extremely narrow view that ignores many examples of environmental stewardship where development of resources coexists with preservation of nature.
“The DCNR’s existing policy represents a more sensible approach that allows for the enjoyment of both Earth’s bounty and beauty,” Tomb said.
It is amazing how little press coverage this important ruling received, Jim Willis, editor of Marcellus Drilling News, told Environment & Climate News.
“The so-called Pennsylvania Environmental Defense Foundation (PEDF) lost a big court case in Pennsylvania’s Commonwealth Court last Friday, but you won’t have heard about it because no one in mainstream media is talking about it or reporting on it,” Willis said. “We couldn’t even find a whisper about the defeat from PA Environmental Digest or StateImpact Pennsylvania.
The only, and we mean only, singular, organization reporting the news of PEDF’s humiliating loss is Lexis-Nexis’ Law360,” Willis said.
Duggan Flanakin (firstname.lastname@example.org) writes from Austin, Texas.