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Pennsylvania court ruling upholds gas drilling leases on public land; appeal planned

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HARRISBURG, Pennsylvania — A state court sided with the Corbett administration Wednesday in upholding the right of the state government to lease more public lands for natural gas and oil drilling.

The Commonwealth Court rejected a 2012 lawsuit by the Pennsylvania Environmental Defense Foundation that sought to halt more drilling in state parks and forests and the diversion of rent and royalty payments away from a land conservation fund called the Oil and Gas Lease Fund.

The court concluded that the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources has exclusive authority over leasing decisions and that the Legislature is free to shift drilling proceeds into other state programs so long as the money is used for "the benefit of all the people."

Patrick Henderson, an energy adviser to Gov. Tom Corbett, called the decision "a resounding win" for the government. As a practical matter, Henderson said, the conservation department acts on the governor's behalf but Corbett has never overridden the department on a leasing decision.

John E. Childe Jr., the foundation's lawyer, said it will appeal the ruling to the state Supreme Court.

Childe said the ongoing leasing of public lands for gas drilling violates a provision in the state constitution that says Pennsylvania's public natural resources are "the common property of all the people, including generations yet to come" and that the state's role is to "conserve and maintain them."

Since the first gas leases were sold in 2008, tens of millions of dollars of the revenue has been diverted to shore up the state's general operating budget under Corbett and his predecessor, Democrat Ed Rendell.

A new round of leasing authorized under legislation Corbett signed in July included $95 million that was supposed to come from new leases, but those were put on hold pending the outcome of the court case.

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