The Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund continues to target communities in Pennsylvania and Ohio for so-called Rights of Nature initiatives aimed at banning fracking and other regulated development activities. Initiatives similar to those that have appeared in Youngstown and the Lake Erie region in Ohio, as well as Grant Township and Potter County, Pa., have been rejected by several courts and voters, and proven costly for taxpayers.
Here’s what Pennsylvania and Ohio residents should know about the group behind the initiatives:
What is the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF)?
CELDF is a nonprofit law firm based in Mercersburg, Pa., west of Gettysburg. It offers communities “free” services to draft local ordinances and provide legal representation for the communities that pass them. Ordinances – which go by names such as “Community Bill of Rights,” “Rights of Nature,” “Charter amendments or home rule” initiatives – often fail or end up in litigation, with the costs for either outcome falling to taxpayers in those communities. CELDF started out fighting “factory farms” and has since set its sights on the oil and gas industry.
Who is CELDF?
Founder and Executive Director Thomas Linzey’s agenda is based on a dismantling of private property rights, as he made clear in a 2015 speech:
“If you are going to put all that work into a ballot initiative, why not do a ballot initiative that bans all finance companies in New York City from funding new projects that exasperate climate change? Why not do something real…why not do something real…cause people are saying to themselves, ‘it would be illegal, it would be unlawful, it would be unconstitutional, because you are taking their property’ well..(expletive), it’s time.” (emphasis added)
Additionally, in 2016 Linzey told audiences in Lancaster that “Pennsylvania’s constitution is a weapon for corporations,” and that it’s “time for a revolt.”
He’s not the only extreme voice in the group. In a 2015 meeting in Youngstown, CELDF National Organizer Ben Price told attendees that “we’re gonna make decisions in here that the rest of the community will just have to live with … It’s how it’s done!”
CELDF’s Pennsylvania Community Organizer Chad Nicholson, who hails from Spokane, Washington, has given numerous presentations, including one titled “Defying the Corporate State,” to communities across Pennsylvania. Nicholson said in 2017:
“Let’s be clear: our state agencies, tasked with ‘environmental protection,’ are legalizing harmful activities by issuing permits to corporations with histories of violations. And, they are doing so against the will and sovereign law of the people who live in the community.”
Also in 2017, Nicholson said that “from the very beginning of this country’s founding with our Constitution that was written in 1787,” we “don’t really have a democracy to begin with, that it’s not just failing.”
CELDF’s Board of Advisors includes Gasland director Josh Fox; Karenna Gore, who is the founding director of the Center for Earth Ethics in New York and Al Gore’s wife; Rainforest Action Network founder Randy Hayes; former Pittsburgh city councilman Doug Shields; and other anti-industry activists.
CELDF does not have a winning record and its desire to prolong litigation even when it knows it has no chance of winning is well documented. In 2018, a Pennsylvania federal judge reprimanded CELDF attorneys (including its founder and executive director, Thomas Linzey) for “bad faith” efforts to impose a ban on an injection well in Grant Township, Indiana County. U.S. District Court Judge Susan Baxter ordered the organization to pay $52,000 in legal costs and said in her ruling:
“This Court has determined that Attorneys Linzey and Dunne have pursued certain claims and defenses in bad faith. Based upon prior CELDF litigation, each was on notice of the legal implausibility of the arguments previously advanced…”
“Despite their own prior litigation, CELDF and Attorney Linzey, in particular, continue to advance discredited arguments as a basis for CELDF’s ill-conceived and sponsored CBR, and in doing so have vexatiously multiplied the litigation of this matter.” (emphasis added)
CELDF focuses on using litigation to drive conversation, regardless of the cost that these irresponsible cases can bring on municipalities and taxpayers. When asked about CELDF’s ultimate motivation, Reuters reported:
“Linzey says his goal is not to write local laws that are popular, or stand up in court, but rather to trigger a public debate about community rights to local self-government – even if it means a community ultimately falls into financial ruin.”
Who pays for CELDF initiatives and legal costs?
CELDF’s failed initiatives have already cost taxpayers in places such as Youngstown tens of thousands of dollars. Voters in the city recently rejected a CELDF ballot initiative for the eighth time. The costs to taxpayers doesn’t appear to bother Linzey, who said,
“If a town goes bankrupt trying to defend one of our ordinances, well, perhaps that’s exactly what is needed to trigger a national movement.” (emphasis added)
Who funds CELDF?
How can CELDF afford such repeated failure? It’s funded through foundations and private donations. They include the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation, Heinz Endowments, Wallace Global Fund and others that actively support anti-fracking and anti-industry groups and initiatives.
What is a “rights of nature” initiative?
Linzey explained the organization’s “rights of nature” movement as:
“What is increasingly growing is a realization that for a real environmental movement to occur, ecosystems must have legally enforceable rights of their own.” (emphasis added)
CELDF has not been successful defending “rights of nature” initiatives in Pennsylvania. Most recently, following CELDF’s attempt to intervene in a lawsuit on behalf of the ecosystem, Judge Baxter ruled:
“As to the issue of whether the Little Mahoning Watershed, an ecosystem, has standing under the law, no determination need be made here. Clear and convincing evidence has not been produced to show that [the township’s] vigorous defense of the Ordinance, the terms of which protect the Watershed in all of its locations, do not line up precisely.” (emphasis added)
Baxter also explained,
“Although defendant wishes it were not so, the development of oil and gas (which necessarily includes the management of waste materials generated at a well site) is a legitimate business activity and land use within Pennsylvania.
“There is no state authority expressly granting a municipal government or its people the authority to regulate the depositing of waste from oil and gas wells or to invalidate permits granted by the state or federal government. Any provision enacted without underlying legislative authority is invalid and unenforceable.” (emphasis added)
As recent years have demonstrated, CELDF will continue to advance its unlawful and unconstitutional agenda so long as wealthy foundations that fund the “Keep It In the Ground” agenda continue to provide the means for it to do so. And given CELDF’s dismal track record, taxpayers will continue to foot the bill for this folly.
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