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Changing Priorities: Science Funding Slashed Under Corbett Administration

  • Scott Detrow
Specialty license plates help fund the Wild Resource Conservation Program

Scott Detrow / StateImpact Pennsylvania

Specialty license plates help fund the Wild Resource Conservation Program

Scott Detrow / StateImpact Pennsylvania

Harrisburg's Rachel Carson Building, where the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources is headquartered

Members of Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett’s administration routinely insist their Marcellus Shale drilling policy is based on science.
But documents obtained by StateImpact Pennsylvania, as well as interviews with more than a dozen people who work both inside and out of state government, highlight top-level decisions to diminish or defund drilling-related scientific research in the commonwealth. Scientists say the decline in government-funded research during the first year of the Corbett Administration leaves open questions about how animals, wildlife and the climate are affected by Pennsylvania’s drilling boom.
Emails and interviews show Corbett appointee Richard Allan, who serves as Department of Conservation and Natural Resources Secretary, oversaw significant changes to a state scientific research program and removed projects examining the impact of natural gas drilling and climate change from a recommended funding list.
Last month, Allan slashed the budget of the agency’s wildlife research program by nearly 70 percent. He did this without consulting the four-person staff responsible for vetting submitted proposals and recommending them for funding.

Allan has said that too many of the research projects were already being addressed by agency employees. In a statement to StateImpact Pennsylvania, the department attributes its cuts to declining revenue in the conservation program’s fund. But the statement did not address how Allan selected which projects to keep and which ones to cut.
In 2010, under the administration of then-Gov. Ed Rendell, the agency’s Wild Resource Conservation Program funded four studies investigating drilling’s impact on songbirds, salamanders and other wildlife and helped pay for nine climate change studies. This year, just one drilling-related effort will receive state funding. These changes came after the  conservation program’s initial call for research proposals specifically asked researchers to submit studies examining the effects of climate change and energy extraction.
The reduction and revision of a recommended projects contradicts the governor’s insistence that his drilling policy is dictated by science, some say.
“It would seem that he doesn’t really mean what he says,” said Cynthia Morton of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, whose research on how climate change will affect Pennsylvania plants was green-lighted for a $34,055 grant before agency officials culled the list. “Science is based on facts. At least the kind of science I do is based on facts. I really wasn’t one hundred percent sure climate change is going to happen. But I want to have the information there.”

The Selection Process

Here’s how the conservation program’s grant funding typically works: Each spring, the program posts its targeted grant priorities. Researchers submit applications, and a team of three state employees works with the program’s executive director to review submissions and arrive at a list of recommended projects and grant totals. In mid-October, the Wildlife Resource Conservation Board meets to vote on which projects to fund. The board has seven members: the agency’s secretary, the executive directors of the Fish & Boat and Game Commissions, and the majority and minority chairs of the state House and Senate environmental committees.
During the administration of Rendell, a Democrat, the conservation program’s projects focused on the impact of climate change. As natural gas drilling in Pennsylvania’s Marcellus Shale formation picked up steam, the program began soliciting research in that area, too.

Revising the Priorities

Last year, the process was no different. The request for proposals went out in March, a bit more than a month after Corbett, a Republican, took office. “Pennsylvania species and natural systems are facing an increasing number of environmental stresses,” the targeted priorities document read, “including habitat fragmentation and loss, invasive species, climate change, and the effects of energy extraction and distribution.”
Through mid-October, it was business as usual. The three state employees who vet projects reviewed 46 applications, which included five Marcellus Shale projects and four climate change research plans. On October 13, the program’s executive director, Greg Czarnecki, emailed a list of 21 recommended projects to Secretary Allan and the program’s board.
The recommended projects list shows Czarnecki and his staffers wanted to fund two projects analyzing plant growth along the gashes left by newly-installed natural gas pipelines. They recommended $36,000 for the second year of a Penn State Study assessing drilling’s impact on birds. The program had already allocated $37,709 to fund the first half of Professor Margaret Brittingham’s project in 2010.
Brittingham is taking a look at what happens to birds when forest acres are cleared out for drill pads and access roads. “This would serve as baseline data,” she said.“We’re hoping from our results we’d be able to say these patterns of development are better than some other patterns. Or if you get up to a level of ten wells or five wells in [one area] you start to see changes in the bird community.” Brittingham hopes her data can help guide drilling within Pennsylvania’s state forests, which will rapidly expand over the coming years.
Two studies researching climate change’s impact on plant life and soil were recommended for funding, including a proposal authored by the Carnegie Museum of Natural History’s Cynthia Morton. Her idea: to test the nationally-recognized Climate Change Vulnerability Index, which uses factors like species history and geography to predict how a plant or animal would adapt to climate change. “We’re trying to look at patterns,” she explained. “Trying to figure out what is the correlation between where these plants live and their rankings in the Climate Change Index … If we can start to see this is good modeling, it could really help us.” The list recommended $34,055 to help fund Morton’s research.
Other projects recommended for funding included cataloging the state’s bog turtle population and assessing an endangered species of rattlesnake.

Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources

DCNR Secretary Richard Allan

A meeting to vote on the recommendations was set October 19 but never happened. Allan cancelled the vote the day before because of scheduling conflicts.
That’s the last anyone in the Wild Resource Conservation Program office heard of the matter for three weeks. On November 10, a agency staffer emailed the board with a new date: December 6. She noted “there have been some revisions to the list of grants recommended for funding.”
The revision, it turned out, was the elimination of 13 recommended projects, including both climate change proposals, and two of the three drilling-related efforts. The Conservation Program’s budget had been slashed from $780,000 to $251,683.
(Scroll down to the bottom of the article to read the initial and revised lists of recommended projects.)
An email written by administrative assistant Debra Miller blamed the reduction on “current budget constraints,” and claimed the remaining projects had been “carefully vetted and selected by our Wild Resource Conservation Program office with additional input from bureau personnel within agency.”
Multiple sources say that’s not true. Those involved in the grant recommendation process say Miller’s email was the first time anyone typically involved in the vetting had heard of the changes. The new list did not include any of the conservation program’s initial priorities.
Only one energy or climate change-related study remained: a project evaluating plant growth along natural gas pipeline routes.

“Transition Year”

Why did Allan and other agency officials eliminate 68 percent of the program’s funding?
StateImpact Pennsylvania submitted a list of questions to the agency press office, asking why Allan delayed the board’s initial vote for a month-and-a-half, and why he trimmed the conservation program’s budget and funding recommendations, without consulting its staff.
We also asked how agency officials selected which projects they’d fund, and which they’d remove from the recommended list.
In an emailed response, agency spokeswoman Chris Novak called 2011 a “transition year,” and said Allan had other agency bureaus review the funding list. She said the amount of money the department spends on research is discretionary – it’s up to the secretary.
Since money going into the fund was down, Novak wrote “a decision was made by agency leadership to dedicate a smaller amount of funding for the grants.”
She didn’t explain how projects were selected, and why the conservation program staff wasn’t involved in the funding decision.

Scott Detrow / StateImpact Pennsylvania

Specialty license plates help fund the Wild Resource Conservation Program

The conservation program’s funding doesn’t come from the state’s general fund budget. Dedicated donations are the program’s primary source of funding. The next time you do your state taxes, look for the check-off box on the bottom of the form – you’ll be asked whether you want to contribute part of your tax return to the conservation program. The program also receives $15 every time a Pennsylvanian buys one of those license plate featuring an otter.  (The conservation program played a critical role in revitalizing Pennsylvania’s river otter population in the 1980s and 90s.)
Corbett’s budget estimates the conservation program would have $445,000 available for spending this year: $278,000 in funds carried over from the 2010-2011 fiscal year, and $167,000 in new revenue. A portion of the $80 million Environmental Stewardship Fund is also available for conservation program grants.
Pennsylvania law appropriates the fund money to agency to carry out the research authorized by the 1982 Wildlife Resource Conservation Act, which directs the program’s seven-member board to “approve projects or programs for funding as necessary to preserve and enhance wild resources.” The board is also authorized to use money from the Environmental Stewardship Fund for research projects.
A week after the board vote, an agency press release announced $31.5 million in grants for “conservation and recreation projects designed to protect natural resources and revitalize communities across the state.” Some of the money came from the Environmental Stewardship Fund.
Allan also told the board he was concerned too many of the projects recommended for funding were duplicating work already being carried out by Department of Conservation and Natural Resources staffers. Republican Scott Hutchinson, who chairs the House Environmental Resources and Energy Committee and sits on the conservation program board, agreed with Allan’s argument.
“If there are other funding sources – other internal ways for the department or their partners to do those kinds of studies without using that funding then we should take advantage of those,” he said in an interview.  “And the department felt that many of the projects that were on the original list were things internal staff could or already was doing.”
The agency has recently expanded its staff of biologists, and now employs at least two researchers who devote all their time to monitoring natural gas drilling and its impacts. But many of its other scientists have multiple responsibilities, and, according to one department employee, simply don’t have the time or resources to carry out research projects like the ones initially recommended for conservation program grants.
Hutchinson thinks Allan cancelled the meeting as soon as he realized what was being proposed. “I don’t know that it was looked at in-depth by the upper levels of agency much before that original meeting was scheduled,” Hutchinson said in an interview. “And then they said, ‘oh my gosh.’ We all have to look twice – three times – at spending money. Let’s look at this program, too.”
Hutchinson supported Allan’s revision, and said he wouldn’t have voted for the initial list.  In fact, the Venango County Republican made his opposition to climate change-related research very clear, during the conservation program board’s 2010 vote.

“Deep reservation” during 2010 Meeting

Minutes from the October 2010 meeting, held during the final months of Governor Rendell’s tenure, when Democrats held five of the board’s seven votes, shed some light on why the Corbett Administration slashed the conservation program’s funding.
In 2010, nine of the recommended research projects examined the impact of climate change, and four looked at natural gas drilling’s implications. Before the board voted, a staffer representing Hutchinson at the meeting read a statement expressing “deep concern and reservation” about the recommended projects. “In the past the [conservation program] has supported projects that sought to restore a variety of plant and non-game species to their habitats. It seems to me that this theme is not being carried forward,” Hutchinson had written. “Instead, it appears to me, that the committee is being asked to recommend projects for funding that…[are] based upon advancing specific public policy agendas rather than one that is more neutral and scientific based.” Hutchinson said he was referring to the climate change projects.

Scott Detrow / StateImpact Pennsylvania

Corbett's energy executive, Patrick Henderson

Patrick Henderson represented Republican Senator Mary Jo White at the meeting. He had a problem with the projects, too. The official minutes, approved by the board during its 2011 meeting, read, “Mr. Henderson expressed concern about natural gas extraction being identified as an environmental impact.” He said, “these projects may not warrant this grant money,” referencing souring budget conditions.
Henderson, of course, went on to become Governor Corbett’s point man on energy and drilling policies. As Energy Executive, Henderson sat on Corbett’s 2011 Marcellus Shale Advisory Commission, and wrote the bulk of its final report.
In an interview, Henderson said the implication that he, as energy executive, played any role in the conservation program’s funding reduction “is not a fair characterization at all.”  Henderson said he had nothing to do with the cut, which he said was likely “a matter of 1) [the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources] having a new secretary, and 2) available dollars. Beyond that, agency can speak to it.”
As for his comments in 2010, when he was representing Senator White, Henderson disputed the meeting minutes’ account. “The characterization…is not accurate,” he said. “Unless you were at the meeting, you can’t draw that conclusion.”
In 2010, Henderson and Hutchinson were in the minority. The research projects were ultimately approved. A year later, when Republicans held control, nearly 70 percent of conservation program funding was cut.

Political Factors

Frank Felbaum served as the conservation program’s executive director for two decades, but left shortly after the program was folded into the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. He was worried about political factors creeping into research decisions – a situation where the department brass would reduce funding for projects they didn’t like.
Asked why these projects matter, Felbaum brought up the scarlet tanager, a bright red bird with black wings, who migrates to South and Central America every winter. “Right now, these songbirds are really taking it due to Marcellus [drilling],” he said. “The wells are ripping apart these interior forest areas for these songbirds that are coming back from South America. One gas well is OK. But when you have thousands of gas wells? … The tanagers are going to be impacted.”
Nearly 20 percent of the world’s scarlet tanager population breeds in Pennsylvania, and Felbaum said it’s important to figure out what the well pads and access roads and pipeline clearings will mean for their habitats. It’s the exact study Margaret Brittingham of Penn State was carrying out, before her second year of funding was eliminated by agency. (Brittingham says she’ll be able to continue her project, but its scope will be drastically limited.)
Research, Felbaum argued, “gives you the best available scientific information to make those decisions that will benefit the commonwealth of Pennsylvania.”

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