Environmental lawyers were slapped with court sanctions Friday for using a sketchy, unfounded legal theory to ban hydraulic fracking in a small community in Pennsylvania.
Magistrate Judge Susan Paradise Baxter reprimanded two attorneys with the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF) for pushing “implausible” legal theories to defend a local ban on oil and gas disposal.
CELDF Executive Director Thomas Linzey and attorney Elizabeth Dunne must pay more than $50,000 to cover part of a Pennsylvania energy company’s legal fees for litigation connected to the ban.
“An attorney’s zealous advocacy for the protection of a client’s interests is certainly appropriate; however, the legitimate pursuit of justice imposes important obligations on counsel to ensure that the Court is not a mechanism of harassment or unbridled obstruction,” Baxter wrote in her decision.
CELDF members panned the judge’s decision. Associate Director Mari Margil claimed the sanctions are an example of the undue influence corporations can exert on the U.S. legal system.
“At a time when Americans more and more are looking to the courts for reason and justice, today we find neither, as corporate forces once again have been able to wield our institutions of government to punish those working to elevate the rights of communities over fossil fuel corporations,” she said in a statement to E&E News.
Pennsylvania General Energy (PGE) had a permit from the Environmental Protection Agency to store wastewater at Grant Township, a town 80-miles from Pittsburgh, Penn., but township officials approved a ban on the practice in 2014.
The ban supposedly stripped corporations of constitutional rights and allowed lawyers to file lawsuits on behalf of forests, not individuals or groups. In short, they could sue to protect forests and nature from fracking.
“Rights of nature” lawsuits are considered unconventional, even though some systems around the world recognize the theory. Linzey used the CELDF in the past to push the legal concept in town ordinances and courtrooms in Ohio and Pennsylvania, among other states and cities.
The court’s decision shows what energy companies have been saying for a long time, Seth Whitehead, a researcher with Energy in Depth, said in a statement to The Daily Caller News Foundation.
“The federal judge’s decision confirms what the numerous communities in which CELDF has pushed its ‘local control’ agenda have known for years — the group has acted in bad faith by pushing legal theories it knows are implausible,” he said, referring to a series of unsuccessful anti-hydraulic fracturing ballot measures in Youngstown, Ohio that cost taxpayers $185,000.
PGE also pushed for sanctions against another CELDF attorney, Lindsey Schromen-Wawrin, who worked to use the “rights of nature” theory to intervene on behalf of the Little Mahoning Creek Watershed in Pennsylvania. Baxter dismissed the company’s push, but blasted the attorney for wasting court resources on a dodgy legal theory that has never been accepted within the U.S.
“Such an approach is unreasonable under any circumstance, but especially in light of the expense and resources borne by PGE, this Court, and the [3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals] to resolve what is otherwise a plainly frivolous attempt to intervene in pending litigation for purposes unrelated to the just litigation of a claim,” Baxter wrote.
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