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Judge: Budget first, then ruling on leasing state lands for natural-gas extraction

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Commonwealth Court Judge P. Kevin Brobson said last week he'll wait for the end of the state budget process before making any ruling in whether the state can lease state park land to natural-gas-drilling companies.

The Pennsylvania Environmental Defense Foundation filed an application for preliminary relief on April 28 against the state’s potential state park land lease that Gov. Tom Corbett included it as part of his 2014-15 budget plan.

A hearing on the application ended June 3 and Brobson filed his four-page order June 5.

“The (c)ourt is mindful that any decision on the application, one way or another, during the pending budget process could affect the negotiations and decision making of legislators and the governor’s office that are inherent in that process,” Brobson wrote in his ruling. “Such interference runs afoul of the principle of separation of powers.”

In the proposed 2014-15 state budget, Corbett included a revenue line item of $75 million through lease fees for “non-surface impact leasing” of state lands for natural-gas extraction, according to Brobson’s order.

The budget also includes $117.5 million from the oil and gas lease fund to support the operating expenses of the state’s Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.

Corbett filed an executive order in May ending the 2010 order from then-Gov. Ed Rendell that no state park land can be leased for oil and natural-gas development. Rendell’s order banned any lease on state-preserved land “which would result in additional surface disturbance on state forest or state park lands.”

The foundation argued the state cannot lease its state parks for natural-gas extraction because it violates the Environmental Rights Amendment of the Pennsylvania Constitution.

The amendment names the state’s citizens as the common property owners of Pennsylvania’s public, natural resources and charges the state as the “trustee” of those resources.

Brobson wrote that once the budget is finalized, the foundation can request a status conference and include any pieces of the final budget it believes are relevant.

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