Monday, June 13, 2016

The Pennsylvania Legislature’s War on the Environment

The General Assembly has launched a multi-front attack on environmental protections in the last two weeks. Republican legislative leaders are moving bills that would interfere with the development of a Clean Power Plan that cuts carbon pollution from power plants, prevent the update of the 1984 regulations that control pollution from conventional gas drilling, allow large industrial electricity users to opt out of the state’s successful energy efficiency program and shift the costs for the program onto residential consumers, and allow the objections of one legislator to put up roadblocks to the adoption of new regulations.

The bill to delay the development of the Clean Power Plan which the state is required to submit to the federal Environmental Protection Agency passed the Senate last week by a 41-9 vote. It would add complicated process and much delay to the effort to develop a sound plan that would begin Pennsylvania’s transition to a clean energy economy.

But the delays and the onerous processes outlined in the bill are really sideshows. The bill is really an attempt to intimidate the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) into crafting a weak plan that will pass muster by coal and gas drilling industries and their allies in the legislature.

The first regulations to protect the air and water from pollution from shallow conventional gas wells were written in 1984 – 32 years ago. Conventional drilling causes contamination and water loss and penetrates the same aquifers that fracking does, and the conventional drillers have more violations of environmental laws than the frackers. New rules to modernize standards for the conventional drillers were poised for final adoption, but the House Environmental and Resources Committee tacked new language to kill the new regulations onto a bill previously passed in the Senate and quickly approved it.

Large commercial and industrial electricity users have decided that they do not want to pay their fair share for Pennsylvania’s energy efficiency program, so they want to opt out of the program. If the bill passes, it will undermine the program making it harder to achieve energy savings, and it will shift the costs for the program onto other ratepayers including residential customers.

And the legislature is also attempting to grind to a halt the development of new regulations whether they address environmental protection, public health, public safety or worker safety.

None of these bills is in the public interest. They threaten the state’s ability to protect the right to clean air and clean water that the Pennsylvania Constitution guarantees to its citizens. And this bald-faced anti-environmental legislation reveals just how pervasive the influence of industries’ unlimited campaign contributions and lobbying dollars are in the legislature. Instead of representing the wishes and interests of the voters in their districts, many of our senators and representatives are carrying polluted water for their political donors.

All these bills are hurtling toward passage by both chambers of the General Assembly in the next two weeks. When they pass, they will land on Governor Wolf’s desk. The Governor will then have to decide if he will stand up for the public or he will cave to the political pressure that has been purchased by industry.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

The truth never got its pants on

There’s a famous quote variously attributed to either Mark Twain or Winston Churchill to wit: A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth gets its pants on.

Right now, no one knows that better than John Quigley who resigned as Department of Environmental Protection Secretary on Friday. Full disclosure – John is a friend of mine. I worked with him at PennFuture and we collaborated on several projects as independent consultants. I have known and admired John and his work for more than a decade.

John is smart, courageous, forthright, fair and pragmatic. He adheres to no straitjacket ideology, and makes decisions based on facts. He is a skilled administrator committed to serving the interests of the public. He makes himself accessible and understands that transparency in the workings of government is the best way to combat public cynicism and build public trust. He is, in short, an excellent public servant.

Quigley was brought down by a vicious, successful smear campaign aided by shoddy reporting of half-truths and outright lies that journalists did not bother to verify. The smear was orchestrated by Senator John Yudicak who was attempting to divert public attention away from his votes to kill regulations that strengthen and modernize oversight of gas drilling and his vote to block Pennsylvania’s Clean Power Plan to reduce carbon emissions from coal-fired power plants.

The kernel of truth at the center of the smear is that after the Senate Environmental Resources and Energy Committee overwhelmingly approved the bills to undermine environmental protections, Quigley sent a blunt email to environmental advocates urging them to step up their efforts to support the new gas drilling regulations and the Clean Power Plan. Lies and innuendo then got layered around that kernel portraying Quigley as personally directing a campaign to inform Senator Yudicak’s constituents of his anti-environmental votes.

When contacted by reporters environmental organizations attempted to set the record straight, but their truthful assertions that Quigley had no role in the public education campaign informing Yudicak’s voters of his actions were characterized by the press as “denials.” Classic – when did you stop beating your wife.

Stories containing the false allegations citing “unnamed sources” jumped from newspaper to newspaper like a wildfire jumping fire lines. The heat became too intense, and Quigley burned at the stake.

Senator Yudicak, along with too many of our legislators, has been herded by the gas drillers onto a protect-gas-drilling-at-all-costs reservation. The senator, savoring his victory, said that “…Quigley was simply off the reservation.” With Quigley gone, he now expects DEP to be more reasonable in its regulation of the gas drillers.

Pennsylvania lost a courageous, principled public servant. And we’ll now get gas drilling regulations that the drillers approve. The rest of us will just have to live with them.

Friday, April 22, 2016

Happy Earth Day - Not

April is Earth Month, but you wouldn’t know it at the state capitol in Harrisburg. April 12 was a dark day for Pennsylvania’s natural resources. The SenateEnvironmental Resources and Energy Committee took three actions that day to undermine protection of our air, land and water and our future.

The three matters before the seven Republicans and four Democrats on the committee were: a bill that would stop the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) from submitting a Clean Power Plan to cut carbon pollution from power plants to the federal Environmental Protection Agency; a bill to stop badly-needed new gas drilling regulations; and, a recommendation for the Independent Regulatory Review Commission to disapprove the five-years-in-the-making update and strengthening of the gas drilling regulations.

The senators on the committee swiftly approved both bills voting eight to three on the bill to kill the gas drilling regulations, and ten to one to derail the Clean Power Plan. All the Republicans and Senator Yudichak voted to kill the gas drilling regulations. Only Senator Dinnimen voted against delaying the Clean Power Plan. The House Environmental Resources and Energy Committee piled on also voting to recommend disapproval of the gas drilling regulations and introducing a resolution to stop them.

These anti-environmental actions are completely out of step with the public’s overwhelming support for strong regulation and oversight of the gas industry and for reducing greenhouse gas pollution and transitioning to a clean energy future. Unfortunately, we all know why the senators would risk the ire of the voters – as PennLive has reported, they’ve been the grateful recipients of almost $43 million in campaign contributions from the energy and natural resources industries over the last 15 years.

Blocking action on these two top priority environmental problems not only threatens our air, water and climate, they stand in the way of technological innovation and the economic development and jobs that addressing the problems would create. The gas drilling industry could go a long way toward regaining lost public support if they accepted the necessary regulations and set about deploying best practices and innovating to reducing drilling’s threats to water resources and air pollution. For example, the new regulations would require drillers to phase out the use of huge toxic wastewater impoundments – a practice that many drillers have already abandoned, but some still use despite a woeful track record of leaks.

Pennsylvania’s Clean Power Plan will detail how the state will cut carbon pollution from dirty power plants by 33 percent by 2030. DEP Secretary John Quigley said the goal is to meet the required reductions and maintain the ability to generate enough power to continue to be a net exporter of electricity to other states. Clean energy industries already employ more Pennsylvanians than gas drilling. The Clean Power Plan will put even more to work building more solar and wind power and aggressively deploying energy efficiency technologies.

These anti-environment bills will be waiting on the Senate floor when the senators return from the primary election break to Harrisburg on May 9. They will have the opportunity to give DEP the tools it needs to protect the public from gas drilling air and water pollution and to reject the effort to keep Pennsylvania from reducing carbon pollution from dirty power plants by opposing the bills. The senators might want to keep in mind that 51 percent of Americans want to ban fracking and 64 percent are very worried about climate change according to recent Gallup polls.

Even though the House and Senate Environmental Resources and Energy committees voted to stop environmental progress during Earth Month, the whole General Assembly has the opportunity to reject those actions in May. The members can demonstrate their independence from the gas drilling and fossil fuel industry and act in the public interest. The Pennsylvania legislature can either allow the stronger gas drilling regulations and the common sense Clean Power Plan to move forward, or they can obstruct the path to a cleaner, safer and more prosperous future.

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Wagner's money and the budget impasse

So, there’s this story circulating in the halls of the state capitol building about a showdown between Senator Scott Wagner and Senator Jake Corman, the Senate Majority Leader. The story goes that Wagner rounded up a posse of senators, approached the majority leader, and threatened to stage a coup to remove him from his leadership position if he allows a vote in the Senate to raise revenue to fund the state budget. Each of the three times I’ve heard the tale, the size of the posse grew – first time I heard it, Wagner had six senators in tow; next time I heard it the posse grew to 10; and, the last time I heard it there were 13 of them.

Whatever the details, this story is consistent with others that have Wagner doing everything he can to thwart compromise on the state budget. His influence reaches across the building into the state House. Wagner sometimes watches House sessions from the gallery as a reminder to Republican members not to dare commit the heresy of compromise by voting to raise the revenue needed to pay the state’s bills.

Few, if any Republicans dare to stand up to the first-term senator from York County who is insisting on, and enforcing, a no-tax ideology.

Here’s why. In 2015 Senator Wagner made a total of $208,461.98 in campaign contributions. Most of this, $116,880, went to candidates for the State Supreme Court who lost to a Democratic sweep. He gave $50,000 to the Senate Republican Campaign Committee, making him the largest individual donor to the committee.

There are Republicans in the General Assembly who will support compromise and vote to raise taxes as the near passing of a compromise budget just before Christmas demonstrated. Or there were – most moderates are now hunkered down fearing that if they leave the Wagner reservation, all that campaign contribution fire-power will be turned on them.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Arenson's appointment politicizes Office of Open Records

Corbett's departing act of appointing Eric Arenson to head the Office of Open Records effectively politicized an office that, under the direction of Terry Mutchler, was non-partisan and professional. Mutchler’s term expired months ago, but Corbett delayed naming a replacement until his last day in office.

Arenson is a Republican operative. He moved immediately to staff the office with Corbett loyalists intending to bring Delene Lantz-Johnson over from Corbett's governor's office. Among her duties there was reviewing open records requests, 70 percent of which she denied. Most of those denials were reversed by Terry Mutchler's office. I am told that Arenson continues to attend a conservative Republican strategy meeting hosted each week by Republican lobbyist Charlie Gerow, the Harrisburg equivalent of Grover Norquist's infamous Wednesday meetings in DC.

Governor Wolf correctly assessed that the political independence and professionalism of the Office of Open Records is at stake and Corbett’s 11th hour appointment of Arenson to head the office is the opposite of government transparency. And Wolf did not name his own replacement. Instead, he will conduct a nationwide search for a highly qualified professional to head the office.

Governor Wolf's action is completely consistent with his stated commitment to openness, transparency and professionalism in state government. What a refreshing change.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Sour grapes from Corbett's speechwriter

Former Governor Corbett’s speechwriter, Dennis Roddy, served up readers of the Harrisburg Patriot/PennLive a plate of sour grapes on inauguration day. Roddy, who lost his job that noon, didn't like Governor Wolf’s speech.

With very few exceptions (…..Ask what you can do for your country) nobody ever remembers inauguration speeches. What people do remember are actions, and on Governor Wolf’s first day in office, he took two actions to begin to restore public confidence in government. The governor signed two executive orders – one banning anyone in the executive branch from receiving gifts from anyone except close, longtime friends or family members, and another that requires the Commonwealth to conduct competitive bidding for outside legal services contracts.

I certainly do not remember Governor Corbett’s inauguration speech, which I assume was written by his speechwriter, but I do remember his actions. He accepted tens of thousands of dollars in gifts from lobbyists, political donors and people with business before state government agencies. Those gifts included the gown Mrs. Corbett wore to the inauguration. He rewarded the gift-givers with appointments to influential boards and commissions, favorable regulatory decisions and lucrative contracts for legal services.

I won’t remember Governor Wolf’s inaugural speech either, but I will remember his actions on his first day in office.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Fractivist foolishness

Groups that cling to the futile hope that Pennsylvania will ban drilling for natural gas are planning to throw a tantrum during Governor-elect Wolf’s inauguration. According to an organizing website, these groups are urging people to disrupt the ceremonies to the point of being arrested.

In doing so, they give the unfortunate impression that the “environmental community” does not support the new governor. In fact, Pennsylvania’s mainstream environmental organizations are looking forward to working with the Wolf Administration to strengthen gas drilling oversight and improve regulations, work for cleaner air and water and begin to address Pennsylvania’s climate change challenges.

While there is no prospect that the new governor will attempt to ban drilling in Pennsylvania, he has said that he will reinstate the moratorium on leasing more state forest and park land for gas drilling; that he supports the moratorium on drilling in the Delaware River watershed; and his Department of Environmental Protection will significantly improve oversight of gas drilling and strengthen regulations to better protect our air and water. His nomination of John Quigley to be secretary of DEP indicates that he means to carry out those campaign promises.

Rather than alienate Governor Wolf and his administration, the fractivists could put their considerable energy and passion to work supporting the governor’s efforts to enact badly-needed improvements in the oversight and regulation of gas drilling. It is unfortunate foolishness that they seem determined to demand the impossible in an unproductive manner.