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Environmentalists say budget bill would delay compliance with Clean Power Plan

Pennsylvania's efforts to comply with the federal plan to curb power-plant emissions could be delayed by an amended fiscal code, critics say

Emma Lee / WHYY

Pennsylvania's efforts to comply with the federal plan to curb power-plant emissions could be delayed by an amended fiscal code, critics say

Nine environmental groups attacked a budget-related bill that was passed by the Pennsylvania Senate Thursday, saying it would “gut” environmental regulations and delay the state’s implementation of the federal government’s ambitious Clean Power Plan to cut emissions from power plants.

The groups said amendments to the fiscal code, which would enable passage of the long-delayed state budget, are designed to make it harder for the state to comply with the Clean Power Plan, which is strongly opposed by many fossil-fuel producers across the country, including Pennsylvania’s coal industry.

The critics accused the Republican-controlled Senate of using the fiscal code to insert looser environmental regulations at the eleventh hour of a tortured budget debate that has left the state without a budget more than five months. They attacked the move as “state government at its least transparent and most hostile to public health, clean and pure water.”

They said the changes, in House Bill 1327, would give the General Assembly power to delay the Department of Environmental Protection’s program to comply with the federal plan, perhaps for years, and would stop the state’s Environmental Quality Board from modernizing oil and gas drilling regulations.

The changes would also appropriate $12 million from the Alternative Energy Investment Act to create a Natural Gas Infrastructure Fund which they said would add to existing state subsidies of the natural gas industry, said the environmental groups, which include the Sierra Club, PennFuture and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Republicans dismissed the attacks, saying critics had failed to read the details of the bill.

“It’s unfortunate these groups have chosen to cling to their rhetoric rather than read the fiscal code bill before making their public statements,” said Jennifer Kocher, a spokeswoman for Senate Republicans.

She said the $12 million cited by the environmental groups is for a worthwhile program that’s designed to offset costs for users of natural gas and was contained “in large measure” in Gov. Tom Wolf’s budget proposal.

“PennFuture didn’t object when the Governor endorsed this so-called ‘last-mile’ initiative so it’s unclear why they are objecting now,” Kocher said.

She said the bill, which will now go before the House, also seeks to create regulations for drillers of conventional natural gas wells that differ from those applying to unconventional wells such horizontal wells drilled into the Marcellus Shale.

“Shallow well drillers are very different than horizontal wells and merit a different (not lower) set of standards,” she said.

Kocher accused DEP Secretary John Quigley of failing to regulate the conventional natural gas industry in accordance with current law.

“If he had shown any propensity to honor current law, then this provision would not be needed,” she said. “He has in fact flaunted current law, requiring yet another clarification of this issue.”

DEP spokesman Neil Shader declined to comment, saying the Governor’s office was responding to all budget-related questions.

Gov. Wolf’s spokesman, Jeffrey Sheridan, also accused Senate lawmakers of using the fiscal code to delay implementation of the federal emissions plan.

“Governor Wolf opposes loading up the fiscal code to gut oil and gas regulations or slow implementation of the Clean Power Plan,” Sheridan said in a statement. “The governor is committed to the Clean Power Plan, which is an important opportunity to reduce emissions and combat climate change, and ensuring proper oversight of the oil and gas industry with the Chapter 78 process as outlined by the General Assembly in Act 13 of 2012.”

In the House, the Democratic Chairman of the Environmental Resources and Energy Committee, Rep. Greg Vitali, called the bill a “backdoor effort by conventional drillers and their allies in the Senate to stop the regulations.”

“The EPA passed its regulations in August and it is now dependent on the states to develop their state-specific plans to reduce emissions,” Vitali said. “Pennsylvania planned to release its plan next September but this bill is part of a continuing strategy of delay by coal industry.”

The bill lengthens the period in which the legislature would consider the DEP’s proposal to comply with the Clean Power Plan from the current 100 days to 180 days.

Since Gov. Wolf has already agreed to submit the Pennsylvania plan to the EPA by September 2016, the extension of the consideration period would give the DEP only until mid-March to complete its plan, and that could be insufficient time for a comprehensive assessment, said Mark Szybist, Senior Program Advocate at the NRDC.

The fiscal code will make it harder for Pennsylvania to submit a plan, and that could lead to the federal government imposing its own compliance plan that may not take into account the state’s specific circumstances, Szybist said.

“No one knows exactly what the federal plan will look like,” he said. “But we know that it would not be custom-tailored to fit Pennsylvania’s unique power sector, protect its citizens, and grow its economy.”

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