Pa. Envtl. Def. Found. v. Commonwealth, 161 A.3d 911 (Pa. 2017)

When the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania acquires proceeds from leasing state forest lands for mineral extraction, the Commonwealth must direct such proceeds toward the maintenance and conservation of public natural resources.
Case Details:

Plaintiff challenged the constitutionality of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania’s (Commonwealth) allocation to its general fund hundreds of millions of dollars generated from leasing forest state lands for mineral extraction. Relying, in part, on Article I, Section 27 of the Pennsylvania Constitution, commonly referred to as the Environmental Rights Amendment (ERA), Plaintiffs argued that the funds should have been allocated to the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation of Natural Resources, the Commonwealth agency tasked with maintaining and conserving public natural resources.

The ERA states:

The people have a right to clean air, pure water, and to the preservation of the natural, scenic, historic and esthetic values of the environment. Pennsylvania’s public natural resources are the common property of all the people, including generations yet to come. As trustee of these resources, the Commonwealth shall conserve and maintain them for the benefit of all the people.

Pa. Const. art. I, § 27.  Since the 1970s, courts had relied on the three-part Payne test created by the Commonwealth Court to analyze constitutional challenges based on the ERA.

After losing at the Commonwealth Court, Plaintiffs appeal to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.  The Supreme Court determined that state forests, and the resources beneath them, qualified as public natural resources under the ERA.  The Supreme Court determined the Payne test was ineffective at addressing constitutional challenges under the ERA because it is “unrelated to the text of [the ERA] and the trust principles animating it.”  Instead, the Supreme Court held “the proper standard of judicial review lies in the text of [the ERA] itself as well as the underlying principles of Pennsylvania trust law in effect at the time of its enactment.”

The specific outcome of this case – that the Commonwealth misallocated proceeds from gas leases by removing them from the trust – is less relevant to land use in Pennsylvania than the general concept that the Payne test may no longer apply and, instead, that courts should look to the text of the ERA itself.  Accordingly, many questions remain, including to what extent this case applies to the state and municipal permitting process.


Date of Decision: 4/6/18

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