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PEDF v. Corbett: Appropriations From The Oil And Gas Lease Fund Do Not Violate The Environmental Rights Amendment

On January 7, 2015, the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania entered an opinion and order in the case Pennsylvania Environmental Defense Foundation v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.  The Pennsylvania Environmental Defense Foundation (“PEDF”) sought declaratory judgment with respect to past and future leasing of State land for oil and natural gas development as well as for the propriety of the use of monies in the Oil and Gas Lease Fund.  The Court did not address the legality of leases executed by the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (“DCNR”) in 2008 and 2010, due to the absence of indispensable parties, i.e., the lessees.

First, the Court held that neither 1602-E nor 1603-E of the Pennsylvania Fiscal Code violates Article I, Section 27, the Environmental Rights Amendment (“ERA”) of the Pennsylvania Constitution.  Section 1602-E mandates that the General Assembly, rather than DCNR, appropriate all royalties paid into the Lease Fund.  The Lease Fund is a depository for all rents and royalties paid from oil and gas leases on Commonwealth lands.  Based upon the plain language of the Fiscal Code, which left rent revenue and bonus payments under the control of DCNR, the Court held that PEDF failed in its burden to show that the General Assembly had infringed on rights protected under the ERA or had not acted consistently with its trustee obligations under the ERA.

Section 1603-E appropriates up to $50 million in royalty monies annually to DCNR to carry out the purposes of the Lease Fund, which include conservation, recreation, dams, and flood control in state parks and forests.  The Court determined whether the funding provided to DCNR for the agency to meet its duties under the ERA was adequate by applying its standard for public funding inquiries.  Under this standard, the constitutional challenge was denied because PEDF presented no evidence that the funding appropriated was “so deficient that DCNR cannot conserve and maintain our State natural resources.”

Second, the Court held that the General Assembly’s transfers and appropriations from the Lease Fund for the benefit of the Commonwealth generally were not inconsistent with the Environmental Rights Amendment.  The Court found that while the Environmental Rights Amendment places a duty on the Commonwealth to conserve and maintain public natural resources.  It does not prohibit the use of revenues derived from public natural resources for non-conservation purposes.  The Court rejected PEDF’s contention that the Lease fund is a trust fund that must be reinvested into the conservation and maintenance of the Commonwealth’s public natural resources.

Third, the Court found that DCNR has the exclusive statutory authority to determine whether to lease Commonwealth lands for oil and natural gas extraction.  The Court reasoned that the Conservation and Natural Resources Act gives DCNR the authority to determine whether leasing public lands is in the best interest of the Commonwealth and, if so, to execute leases as the agency deems appropriate.