The Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled yesterday, June 20, on Pennsylvania Environmental Defense Fund v. Commonwealth. The majority decision is a huge win for the Pennsylvania Constitution, specifically Article 1, Section 27 (the “Environmental Rights Amendment”), and conservation. At the most basic level, the Court said that the Pennsylvania Constitution means what it says:
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.
This right is part of the Constitution’s Article 1—Pennsylvania’s “Declaration of Rights”—which is akin to the U.S. Constitution’s Bill of Rights.
The immediate effect of the ruling is that the General Assembly and governor are prohibited from selling oil and gas from state forests without reinvesting the proceeds into conservation. The Commonwealth had been using much of this revenue to fund general government operations. Government will now have to clearly connect revenues generated by taking from our publicly owned natural resources to the conservation and maintenance of those natural resources, which the government does not own but rather holds in trust for the public.
The Court affirmed that the public trust provision of Section 27 is “self-executing”—that is, it needs no law passed by the General Assembly to make it operational.
To quote (without references) from the Supreme Court decision:
Pennsylvania’s environmental trust thus imposes two basic duties on the Commonwealth as the trustee. First, the Commonwealth has a duty to prohibit the degradation, diminution, and depletion of our public natural resources, whether these harms might result from direct state action or from the actions of private parties. Second, the Commonwealth must act affirmatively via legislative action to protect the environment.
With this decision the Court sends a message that it is serious about upholding Article 1, Section 27, a fundamental Constitutional right that—until now—has received shamefully little respect from our governmental leaders.
See the court’s whole opinion.