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.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Quigley, Dunn best choices for PA's environment

Competence, experience, commitment. Governor-elect Tom Wolf’s choice of John Quigley to head the Department of Environmental Protection and Cindy Dunn as secretary of the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources shows the new governor wants people in his cabinet who possess those qualities. And John and Cindy have them in abundance.

Cindy has spent her career in conservation. From her early days as an outdoor educator for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, she served as director of both the Pennsylvania office of the Alliance for the Chesapeake and Audubon Pennsylvania and went on to serve in leadership positions at DCNR under both Republican and Democratic secretaries. She will leave her post as CEO of PennFuture to take the helm at DCNR.

At the tender age of 26, John was elected mayor of Hazelton serving two terms in a town where politics is almost a blood sport. He held management positions in the private sector and came to Harrisburg to take the position of government relations manager at PennFuture. He served as deputy secretary of DCNR under Mike DeBerardinis and was confirmed as the agency’s secretary when DeBerardinis returned to Philadelphia.

Both John and Cindy are committed to public service. They embody the values of the Pennsylvania Constitution’s Environmental Rights Amendment which guarantees the Commonwealth’s citizens the right to “clean air, pure water and to the preservation of the natural, scenic, historic and esthetic values of the environment,” and they take seriously their duty under that amendment to protect that right.

Both are also pragmatic. Over the course of their careers both have worked successfully with industries in the interest of a cleaner environment and conservation of our natural resources. They will be fair and firm. They understand that a good economy depends on a clean environment. Their decisions and policies will be guided by data and informed by science.

Governor-elect Wolf has made the best choices possible for these crucial positions. Given their competence, experience and commitment to public service John Quigley and Cindy Dunn deserve swift confirmation by the Senate.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Mixed bag - court ruling on state forest gas leasing

Yesterday Commonwealth Court handed down a ruling in a case brought by the Pennsylvania Environmental Defense Foundation (PEDF) that challenged the transfer of royalty revenue from gas drilling on state forestland from the Oil and Gas Lease Fund to the General Fund.

Prior to 2009, the 1955 Oil and Gas Lease Fund Act restricted the uses of the revenue for “conservation, recreation, dams, or flood control,” and placed the discretion to allocate the funds solely in the hands of the secretary of the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR). In 2008, DCNR decided to allow drilling for Marcellus shale gas in state forestland. In one afternoon a lease auction brought $163 million into the Fund, more than had ever gone into it in its entire existence.

In 2009, the legislature and the Rendell administration transferred $60 million from the Oil and Gas Lease Fund into the General Fund to balance the state budget. Since then, well more than half a billion dollars has flowed into Oil and Gas Lease Fund, and almost all of it has been transferred out. DCNR operations are now essentially “off budget” funded nearly entirely by gas drilling and timbering royalties.

The PEDF lawsuit claimed that the transfers violate the Pennsylvania Constitution’s Environmental Rights Amendment. Commonwealth Court said it did not, and the legislature has the power to use the Oil and Gas Lease Fund revenue in whatever way it chooses as long as it’s for the benefit of all the people of Pennsylvania
However, the court also ruled that the secretary of DCNR, not the governor, has the sole discretion to lease state forest land for gas drilling – a small distinction as the governor is the DCNR secretary’s boss. Perhaps of more importance, the court reaffirmed that the language of the Environmental Rights Amendment actually confers the right to clean air and pure water to Pennsylvania citizens and requires the Commonwealth to protect that right.

The PEDF lawsuit also prevented the Corbett administration’s plan to lease more state forest land for gas drilling, and Governor-elect Tom Wolf promised to reinstate the Rendell moratorium on further leasing of our public forest for gas drilling.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Longwall mining - the BIG frack

Longwall mining is engineered to do damage. In 1994, Pennsylvania passed a law, Act 54 that sanctioned longwall mining, even though everyone knew it was going to damage property, roads, utilities, streams and water supplies.

Prior to 1994, the law required coal mining companies to prevent damage from mine subsidence – the sinking of the surface ground into voids created by the removal of the coal. With the passage of Act 54, coal companies no longer have to prevent subsidence, the just have to restore the damage or pay compensation to landowners whose properties have been undermined.

In an underground longwall mine, a high-powered shearer moves along the face of the coal deposit cutting about three feet into the face of the wall leaving no supports in its wake. The ground above predictably sinks, sometimes as much as four feet or more.

Act 54 requires DEP to prepare a report every five years that chronicles the damage to streams, water supplies and structures, and a new report was released last week. Here are some findings. Between 2008 and 2013:

  • ·       70 percent of the streams above five longwall mines were damaged;
  • ·       393 water supplies were damaged;
  • ·       It took coal companies an average of 220 days to either fix, replace or pay landowners for lost water supplies with only 12 percent being actually repaired or recovered;
  • ·       There were 315 cases of damages to surface structures, and it took an average of 169 days for coal companies to repair or compensate property owners for the damages. However, it took an average of 518 days when property owners were seeking compensation, and some people waded through an average of 710 days of negotiations.

Historic coal mining in Pennsylvania left scars on the landscape not healed even after 100 years. In 2012, the Commonwealth was the fourth largest coal-producing state in the nation and accounted for almost 11 percent of all coal pulled out of underground mines. Coalfield residents and the land and water above the longwalls continue to bear the brunt of our addiction to the dirtiest fuel.

Monday, January 5, 2015

Save the planet - not

One news article today partially explains two others. The Japan Meteorological Agency reported that global temperatures in 2014 were the hottest on record, and a historian details the official non-action that led to the collapse of the cod population in the Gulf of Maine. In both cases, the refusal or inability of policymakers to face the facts and change course leads inexorably to bad outcomes.

With the brief exception of the early 1970s when Congress enacted a flurry of bedrock environmental protection laws, our political system has not effectively addressed the degradation of our land, air and water and the decimation of plants and animals. According to David Fenton, who helps environmental organizations with communications, part of the reason results from the inability of environmental protection advocates to “sell” their issue to the general public. They focus on the head and ignore the heart.

He’s right – to a point. People working in mainstream environmental organizations are getting much better at understanding what ordinary people care about and talking to them in ways that address those hopes and fears. But environmental organizations continue to be handicapped by a chronic lack of resources they can use to disseminate good communications. The Koch Brothers they ain’t, and most funders of environmental groups are far more comfortable supporting stream restoration or land preservation.

Fenton also fails to note that most environmental organizations are classified as public charities, so they cannot participate at all in political campaigns and toil under strict restrictions on lobbying.

But in the face of global warming, we can’t fool around any longer. We need images as powerful as the tear drop on the stoic Native American, the resources to keep those images in front of people and the power to directly engage the political system.