Pa. Envtl. Defense Found. v. Commonwealth

Decision Date20 June 2017
Docket NumberNo. 10 MAP 2015,10 MAP 2015
Citation161 A.3d 911
Parties PENNSYLVANIA ENVIRONMENTAL DEFENSE FOUNDATION, Appellant v. COMMONWEALTH of Pennsylvania, and Governor of Pennsylvania, Tom Wolf, in his official capacity as Governor, Appellees
CourtPennsylvania Supreme Court

161 A.3d 911

COMMONWEALTH of Pennsylvania, and Governor of Pennsylvania, Tom Wolf, in his official capacity as Governor, Appellees

No. 10 MAP 2015

Supreme Court of Pennsylvania.

ARGUED: March 9, 2016
DECIDED: June 20, 2017

Thomas Y. Au, Esq., Diana Csank, Esq., for Sierra Club, Amicus Curiae.

Thomas G. Collins, Esq., Kevin Patrick Lucas, Esq., David James Porter, Esq., Buchanan lngersoll & Rooney, P.C., for Republican Caucuses of the PA House of Representatives and PA Senate, Amicus Curiae.

John C. Dernbach, Esq., for Widener University Law School Environmental Law and Sustainability Center, Amicus Curiae.

Matthew Hermann Haverstick, Esq., Mark Edward Seiberling, Esq., Joshua John Voss, Esq., for Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission, Amicus Curiae.

George Jugovic Jr., Esq., for Citizens for Pennsylvania's Future, Penn Future, Amicus Curiae.

Kevin Jon Moody, Esq., Pennsylvania Independent Oil and Gas Association, for PA Independent Oil & Gas Association, Amicus Curiae.

Jordan Berson Yeager, Esq., Curtin & Heefner LLP, for Delaware Riverkeeper Network and Pennsylvania Land Trust Association, Amicus Curiae.

John E. Childe Jr., Esq., for Pennsylvania Environmental Defense Foundation, Appellant.

161 A.3d 916

Sean Martin Concannon, Esq., Office of General Counsel, Stephen S. Aichele, Esq., Audrey F. Miner, Esq., Pennsylvania Department of Conservation & Natural Resources (DCNR), for Wolf, Tom, Appellee.

Howard Greeley Hopkirk, Esq., Office of Attorney General, for Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, Appellee.

Gregory R. Neuhauser, Esq., PA Office of Attorney General, for Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and Wolf, Tom, Appellees.




In 1971, by a margin of nearly four to one, the people of Pennsylvania ratified a proposed amendment to the Pennsylvania Constitution's Declaration of Rights, formally and forcefully recognizing their environmental rights as commensurate with their most sacred political and individual rights. Article I, Section 27 of the Pennsylvania Constitution provides:

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. In this case, we examine the contours of the Environmental Rights Amendment in light of a declaratory judgment action brought by the Pennsylvania Environmental Defense Foundation ("Foundation"), an environmental advocacy entity, challenging, inter alia, the constitutionality of statutory enactments relating to funds generated from the leasing of state forest and park lands for oil and gas exploration and extraction. Because state parks and forests, including the oil and gas minerals therein, are part of the corpus of Pennsylvania's environmental public trust, we hold that the Commonwealth, as trustee, must manage them according to the plain language of Section 27, which imposes fiduciary duties consistent with Pennsylvania trust law. We further find that the constitutional language controls how the Commonwealth may dispose of any proceeds generated from the sale of its public natural resources. After review, we reverse in part, and vacate and remand in part, the Commonwealth Court's order granting summary relief to the Commonwealth and denying the Foundation's application for summary relief.

I. History and Enactment of the Environmental Rights Amendment

Section 27 contains an express statement of the rights of the people and the obligations of the Commonwealth with respect to the conservation and maintenance of our public natural resources. In Robinson Township v. Commonwealth , 623 Pa. 564, 83 A.3d 901 (2013) (plurality), a plurality of this Court carefully reviewed the reasons why the Environmental Rights Amendment was necessary, the history of its enactment and ratification, and the mischief to be remedied and the object to be attained. At the outset of this opinion, we reiterate this historical background, which serves as an important reminder as we address the issues presented in the present case:

It is not a historical accident that the Pennsylvania Constitution now places citizens' environmental rights on par with their political rights. Approximately three and a half centuries ago, white pine, Eastern hemlock, and mixed hardwood forests covered about 90 percent of the Commonwealth's surface of over 20
161 A.3d 917
million acres. Two centuries later, the state experienced a lumber harvesting industry boom that, by 1920, had left much of Pennsylvania barren. "Loggers moved to West Virginia and to the lake states, leaving behind thousands of devastated treeless acres," abandoning sawmills and sounding the death knell for once vibrant towns. Regeneration of our forests (less the diversity of species) has taken decades.

Similarly, by 1890, "game" wildlife had dwindled "as a result of deforestation, pollution and unregulated hunting and trapping." As conservationist John M. Phillips wrote, "In 1890, the game had practically disappeared from our state.... We had but few game laws and those were supposed to be enforced by township constables, most of whom were politicians willing to trade with their friends the lives of our beasts and birds in exchange for votes." In 1895, the General Assembly created the Pennsylvania Game Commission and, two years later, adopted a package of new game laws to protect endangered populations of deer, elk, waterfowl, and other game birds. Over the following decades, the Game Commission sought to restore populations of wildlife, by managing and restocking species endangered or extinct in Pennsylvania, establishing game preserves in state forests, and purchasing state game lands. Sustained efforts of the Game Commission over more than a century (coupled with restoration of Pennsylvania's forests) returned a bounty of wildlife to the Commonwealth.

The third environmental event of great note was the industrial exploitation of Pennsylvania's coalfields from the middle of the nineteenth well into the twentieth century. During that time, the coal industry and the steel industry it powered were the keystone of Pennsylvania's increasingly industrialized economy. The two industries provided employment for large numbers of people and delivered tremendous opportunities for small and large investors. "[W]hen coal was a reigning monarch," the industry operated "virtually unrestricted" by either the state or federal government. The result, in the opinion of many, was devastating to the natural environment of the coal-rich regions of the Commonwealth, with long-lasting effects on human health and safety, and on the esthetic beauty of nature. These negative effects include banks of burning or non-burning soft sooty coal and refuse; underground mine fires; pollution of waters from acid mine drainage; subsidence of the soil; and landscapes scarred with strip mining pits and acid water impoundments. In the mid–1960s, the Commonwealth began a massive undertaking to reclaim over 250,000 acres of abandoned surface mines and about 2,400 miles of streams contaminated with acid mine drainage, which did not meet water quality standards. The cost of projects to date has been in the hundreds of millions of dollars, and the Department of Environmental Protection has predicted that an estimated 15 billion dollars is in fact necessary to resolve the problem of abandoned mine reclamation alone. Id.

The overwhelming tasks of reclamation and regeneration of the Commonwealth's natural resources, along with localized environmental incidents (such as the 1948 Donora smog tragedy in which twenty persons died of asphyxiation and 7,000 persons were hospitalized because of corrosive industrial smoke; the 1959 Knox Mine disaster in which the Susquehanna River disappeared into the Pittston Coal Vein; the 1961 Glen Alden mine water discharge that killed more than 300,000 fish; and the Centralia
161 A.3d 918
mine fire that started in 1962, is still burning, and led to the relocation of all residents in 1984) has led to the gradual enactment of statutes protecting our environment. The drafters of the Environmental Rights Amendment recognized and acknowledged the shocks to our environment and quality of life:

We seared and scarred our once green and pleasant land with mining operations. We polluted our rivers and our streams with acid mine drainage, with industrial waste, with sewage. We poisoned our ‘delicate, pleasant and wholesome’ air with the smoke of steel mills and coke ovens and with the fumes of millions of automobiles. We smashed our highways through fertile fields and thriving city neighborhoods. We cut down our trees and erected eyesores along our roads. We uglified our land and we called it progress.

1970 Pa. Legislative Journal–House at 2270 (quoting anonymous 1698 description of Penn's Woods air).

With these events in the recent collective memory of the General Assembly, the proposed Environmental Rights Amendment received the unanimous assent of both chambers during both the 1969–1970 and 1971–1972 legislative sessions. Pennsylvania voters ratified the proposed amendment of the citizens' Declaration of Rights on May 18, 1971, with a margin of nearly four to one, receiving 1,021,342 votes in favor and 259,979 opposed.

The decision to affirm the people's environmental rights in a Declaration or Bill of Rights, alongside political rights, is relatively rare in American constitutional law. In addition to Pennsylvania, Montana and Rhode Island are the only other states of the Union to do so. See Pa. Const. art. I, § 27 (1971) ; Mt. Const. art. II, § 3 (1889); R.I. Const. art. I, § 17 (1970). Three other states—Hawaii, Illinois, and

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