Harrisburg, PA -- Today, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled that the state government must act as trustees for public natural resources under the Environmental Rights Amendment. The decision overturns a lower court decision and rules that the state government did not comply with its constitutional duties to Pennsylvanians when it acted to lease public land to oil and gas interests without directing the profits toward conservation efforts, and that future leasing decisions must include an assessment of the public interest.
The ruling comes in response to a case originally filed by the Pennsylvania Environmental Defense Foundation in March 2012 over a series of short-sighted government decisions to address state budget gaps through an unprecedented expansion of the state’s oil and gas leasing program. Through this attempt to convert public natural resources into quick cash for the government, Pennsylvanians lost nearly a tenth of their state forests to private fracking interests.
“This is a major victory for the people of Pennsylvania, who have repeatedly asked the government to put people over profits and hard won environmental protections before stopgap budget measures,” said Joanne Kilgour, Director of Sierra Club Pennsylvania. “The Environmental Rights Amendment recognizes the people’s right to clean air and water and the preservation of public resources. Today the court confirmed that the governor and legislature must take these constitutional duties seriously.”
“The PEDF is grateful that, after 45 years since enactment, the Supreme Court has finally adopted Article I Section 27 as a viable trust for our public natural resources,” said John Childe of the Pennsylvania Environmental Defense Foundation. “The Court has mandated that the Commonwealth must manage and protect our public natural resources under strict compliance with the fiduciary requirements as a trustee. No longer can the Commonwealth treat our public resources as government property. Our resources are our property, and the government must protect them for us and for all our future generations. The court has further recognized that money from the conversion of those resources must be used for the benefit of those resources. This should stop our legislature from requiring leasing of our State Forest and Parks for revenue. The opinion is clear and far reaching. But there are many issues left open to further interpretation. There is still much work to be done in our courts to provide the protection of our resources from further government incursion.”
“This ruling is monumental for not only public lands, but for the citizens of Pennsylvania. The court has made clear the constitution’s promise to protect the environment will be upheld, and it reinforces the notion and the law that states every citizen has a right to clean air, pure water, and protected land.” said George Jugovic, Jr., Vice President for Legal Affairs at environmental advocacy group PennFuture. "Government at all levels are put on notice that they cannot ignore the people’s constitutional rights, as guaranteed by the Environmental Rights Amendment. This decision affirms that those rights are fundamental, and they are enforceable."
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