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Court Ruling Called Victory for Environmental Rights

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled the state must act at all times as a trustee of public natural resources. (Nicholas A. Tonelli/Flickr)
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled the state must act at all times as a trustee of public natural resources. (Nicholas A. Tonelli/Flickr)
June 22, 2017

HARRISBURG, Pa. – Environmental advocates are calling a ruling by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court a landmark decision for public natural resources.

The ruling came in a case challenging the use of proceeds from oil and gas leases on public lands for anything other than environmental preservation.

The 4-to-2 ruling, issued Tuesday, broadens the interpretation of the Environmental Rights Amendment to the state constitution.

John Childe, an attorney with the Pennsylvania Environmental Defense Foundation, maintains the ruling should stand as a model for other states and nations.

"It makes it an inalienable right of the people to have their public natural resources protected, for both the people now and for all future generations," he states.

The court ruled that the governor and the General Assembly are trustees, not proprietors of public land. The state argued that would hinder economic development.

For years, state leaders have acted as if they were the owners of the state's natural resources, which Childe says allowed them to make changes to public lands, or even sell them.

"As the trustees, you do not have that authority,” he explains. “You can only do what the trust duty imposes on you, which in this case is to conserve and maintain the public natural resource."

In 2009, former Gov. Tom Corbett allowed some of the royalties from oil and gas leases on public lands to be used as part of the state's general fund.

According to Childe, Tuesday's ruling means those funds now must remain within the trust and only be used to protect the state's natural resources under the trust. That could have immediate fiscal and policy implications for the state.

"Because the existing royalty, as the court suggests in its opinion, will be in the amount of hundreds of millions of dollars," he points out.

The Environmental Rights Amendment, Article 1, Section 27 of the state constitution, was passed by referendum in 1971.


Andrea Sears, Public News Service - PA