Court To Hear Shale Gas Challenge

Gov Tom CorbettPowersource 

By Laura Legere

Pennsylvania’s Commonwealth Court will hear arguments Wednesday in a legal battle over whether the state violated its duty to conserve public natural resources by leasing state forests for shale gas development and using the bonanza to balance budgets.

The case will determine if Gov. Tom Corbett and the General Assembly can go ahead with a plan to raise $95 million for the general fund this fiscal year by signing new natural gas leases under state parks and forests.

It will also provide a first answer for how courts will handle claims under the state’s long-neglected environmental rights amendment, which was rejuvenated in December by a state Supreme Court decision in a separate case.

The Pennsylvania Environmental Defense Foundation first challenged the natural gas leasing and fund transfers in 2012. The environmental advocacy group is asking the court to declare that both Mr. Corbett and former Gov. Ed Rendell violated the state constitution by leasing state lands for shale gas extraction without adequately considering or protecting against harms to public resources, and by diverting the windfall away from a special fund set aside for conservation projects.

Pennsylvania’s environmental rights amendment — article 1, section 27 of the constitution — requires the state to conserve and maintain its public natural resources for the benefit of all its citizens, current and future. It also declares Pennsylvanians’ right to clean air, pure water, and the preservation of the environment’s natural, scenic, historic and aesthetic values.

The commonwealth argues that the environmental rights amendment does not place limits on the governor’s power to decide to lease gas interests under state lands. Instead the amendment requires the governor to “consider the potential impacts on the environment of proposed actions as part of a balancing of environmental and economic considerations,” attorneys for the state wrote in a brief filed in August.

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