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Fracking, Green Amendments, and Defending Democracy in Pennsylvania and Beyond!

Delaware Riverkeeper Maya K. van Rossum makes the case for joining the Green Amendments for The Generations movement and aiding efforts to keep our Delaware River watershed frack free.

In 2010, our Delaware River Watershed community achieved an amazing victory for our River, watershed, communities, and future generations. We successfully secured a moratorium against fracking for gas from shale anywhere within the boundaries of the Delaware River watershed. This moratorium didn’t just protect us all from the ravages of the actual industrial fracking operations, it included protection from industry using our watershed as a repository for its toxic wastewater, and prevented water from our watershed being used to support fracking operations in neighboring watershed communities. Together, as a watershed community, we then advocated, educated, litigated and demanded this moratorium be turned into a permanent ban. And we succeeded!  

Yes, there are some dangerous loopholes regarding fracking wastewater and water exports in the current Delaware River watershed fracking ban. Together we continue to battle to close them. But no matter how you look at it, as a community we secured powerful protection for all our watershed’s communities and all generations from the ravages of fracking and the devastating environmental and climate changing emissions it undeniably inflicts.

Rather than applaud this protection secured by the undaunting efforts of our watershed communities, Pennsylvania Congressman Scott Perry tried to misuse his congressional position to rob us of the protections from fracking we worked so hard to secure. Recently, Congressman Perry proposed legislative language that would prohibit the Delaware River Basin Commission – the source of the ban on fracking in our watershed – from regulating fracking, including advancing the protective ban. Thankfully, enough members of Congress voted down Perry’s proposal; but we at the Delaware Riverkeeper Network were worried and worked hard to signal the alarm.

Congressman Perry is not the only legislator trying to misuse his power to undermine democracy, environmental protection, and the will and best interests of the people of our watershed and world. Pennsylvania State Senators Gene Yaw and Lisa Baker have advanced many pieces of legislation and legal actions designed to remove the fracking protection our watershed has secured. What could possibly be the motivation for such an affront to our communities, environment and democracy? When researching my book, The Green Amendment, The People’s Fight For a Clean, Safe and Healthy Environment, I found a number of disgusting facts, including this one that I think speaks for itself as to why legislators like Yaw would work so hard to serve the fracking industry over the health and safety of our communities and environment: “State Senator Eugene Yaw, among the Pennsylvania legislators working to defeat our Delaware River Basin protections from fracking, received over $58,000 [from the oil and gas industry] between 2007 and 2018. Yaw also directly pockets income by leasing his own property for drilling.”

Whatever the motivation, this kind of abuse of governmental power is a direct affront to the demand of the people for environmental protection. Legislators like Perry, Yaw and Baker have been emboldened by our current system of laws and government to advance their personal priorities over the environmental needs of those they represent. Whether looking at the state or federal level, across our nation our system of governance hands ultimate authority to legislators to decide whether or not, and to what degree, they will pass the laws necessary to protect the environments and ecosystems we depend upon and of which we are a part.   

When it comes to other fundamental rights like speech, religion or civil rights, we trust our legislators to take the FIRST pass at protecting our inalienable human, civil and political rights. But, the ultimate power legally lies with the people to stand in defense of such basic and cherished fundamental rights. How? Our state and federal constitutions recognize other fundamental rights such as speech, religion and civil rights as being among those inalienable rights reserved to the people and protected from government action that would infringe upon them, including empowering third parties (such as law enforcement or industry) from infringing. When there is a government sanctioned or ordered infringement upon these fundamental rights, We The People can go to court and demand a remedy to restore these essential freedoms.

With bill of rights placement and properly crafted language, constitutional Green Amendments place environmental rights on par with other fundamental rights protected from government overreach. With Green Amendments in place, when environmental rights are infringed upon, the constitution can be utilized to defend and restore them. Green Amendments currently exist in three states at this point: Pennsylvania, Montana and, as of last year, inspired by my Green Amendment for the Generations movement, New York. In addition, similarly inspired by the Green Amendment movement, proposals are advancing in over 15 other states with a vision for a federal amendment when the time is right.

Green Amendments are not an instant panacea for all of the environmental problems we face; they will not instantly remedy the failings of our current system. But Green Amendments do take the most powerful legal tool we have in our nation – our state and federal constitutions – and put them to work for environmental protection. Numerous legal victories in Pennsylvania, Montana and New York have demonstrated that when environmental rights are given Green Amendment recognition and protection – i.e. they are placed in a constitution’s bill of rights and recognized as a right of the people not to be infringed upon by government action – the whole system of environmental governance is transformed.  

I founded the Green Amendment movement in 2014, the year after my Delaware Riverkeeper Network used Pennsylvania’s Green Amendment found in Article 1, Section 27 of the state constitution to defeat a pro-fracking law that would have stripped communities and the environment of even the most basic of protections.  Up until our use, Pennsylvania’s amendment had been largely disregarded as a mere statement of policy, rather than an enforceable constitutional entitlement. After our victory, defeating the devastating provisions of the pro-fracking law, and having determined that only Montana had a similar amendment, I embarked on my journey to secure this powerful constitutional recognition of environmental rights in every state across our nation, and ultimately at the federal level.  

Among other victories, Pennsylvania’s Green Amendment helped ensure our watershed fracking ban has held strong. When PA State Senators Yaw and Baker tried to challenge the ban on fracking, the U.S. Court of Appeals ruling made clear that the ban on fracking was not an obstacle to the obligation to protect environmental rights and natural resources required by the constitution, but was in support of the constitutional protections promised by the Pennsylvania Green Amendment.

Green Amendments are an opportunity to transform our U.S. system of law, governance and democracy to ensure that all people and all generations experience the health, quality of life, education, joy and economic prosperity a clean, safe and healthy environment provides.

This Earth Day, I ask you to consider becoming part of the national Green Amendments For The Generations movement, as well as the effort to keep our Delaware River watershed frack free. Use your constitutional right to pure water, clean air and a healthy environment protected in Article 1, Section 27 of the Pennsylvania constitution to ensure all Pennsylvania government officials defend the Delaware River ban on fracking and do all they can to advance fracking protections statewide. Vow to only elect those to public office who embrace their constitutional obligation to protect your environmental rights. Reach across the River and downstream to friends, family, and colleagues in New Jersey and Delaware and encourage them to become part of their state efforts to secure a Green Amendment. Encourage our upriver neighbors in New York to embrace their Green Amendment protections found in Article 1 Section 19 of their state constitution. 

You can learn more about the Green Amendment movement at www.ForTheGenerations.org; and you can ensure you are fully up to date on the efforts to protect the Delaware River at www.DelawareRiverkeeper.org.

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Picture of Maya K. van Rossum

Maya K. van Rossum

Maya K. van Rossum is the Delaware Riverkeeper and 30-year leader of the regional Delaware Riverkeeper Network. She is founder of the national Green Amendments For The Generations movement and organization, and author of The Green Amendment, The People’s Fight For a Clean, Safe & Healthy Environment (2nd edition of her award winning book).

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