Any secretary of Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection needs to combine technical and political skills to ensure air and water quality are being defended while navigating the often-conflicting agendas of the environmental and industrial communities.
Acting Secretary Patrick McDonnell, a 19-year veteran of the department, took on what observers say is one of the state’s most challenging cabinet positions when he was named to replace John Quigley, who resigned on May 20 after only 16 months in office.
Quigley left following controversy over an angry email he sent to some environmental groups in April, which accused them of failing to exert a strong influence in Harrisburg. He sent it one day after lawmakers rejected new oil and gas regulations he had championed.
If Quigley, a former advocate with the environmental group PennFuture, seemed too close to the green community, observers expect his successor to chart a smoother course through the turbulent waters of Pennsylvania’s energy politics.
Rob Altenburg, director of the PennFuture Energy Center, and a former colleague of McDonnell’s at the DEP, said the new acting secretary has long experience of technical issues ranging from fracking to pipelines and carbon emissions, as well as of senior administrative roles such as budgeting, and is likely to take a less adversarial position than Quigley did.
“Secretary Quigley would probably be more predisposed to be very vocal on the issues,” says Altenburg. “He came from a background where, in addition to politics, he did quite a bit of advocacy whereas Patrick McDonnell is coming from a background of more government administration, so he will probably take a different approach.”
It remains to be seen whether Governor Tom Wolf formally nominates McDonnell to be the permanent secretary of the DEP.
“Right now I’m just taking it a day at a time,” McDonnell tells StateImpact Pennsylvania. “I’m hopeful I’ll get the nomination. We’re going to continue work on things like methane and alternative energy. My hope is that I’ll be be judged by the actions we take going forward.”
McDonnell’s public LinkedIn profile lists his areas of expertise as including carbon regulations, power markets, public utility policy, and the Marcellus Shale. As the DEP’s policy director from March 2015 to May this year, he coordinated policy on the development of natural gas pipelines, and was responsible for the state’s renewable energy and energy-efficiency programs.
McDonnell attended many of the 14 public “listening sessions” that were held around the state last year by Wolf’s Pipeline Infrastructure Task Force, which was headed by Quigley.
McDonnell’s previous positions at DEP include Deputy Secretary from 2007 to 2011, and before that, policy director, and executive policy specialist. His career at DEP began in 1997 when he was a management associate.
Altenburg said McDonnell is committed to policies on climate change, and is likely to actively support the state’s efforts to comply with the federal Clean Power Plan to cut power-plant emissions, but will do so in a way that doesn’t ruffle feathers in the legislature or elsewhere in the Wolf administration.
“He is not the type that is going to be in conflict with the administration,” Altenburg said. “I think he is predisposed to work within the administration structure.”
Myron Arnowitt, Pennsylvania director for the environmental group Clean Water Action, said he expects McDonnell to support past policy but that it remains to be seen whether his hands will be tied by the Governor’s office, especially on the implementation of Chapter 78 oil and gas regulations.
“It’s not that we have any bad feelings about where he might go with it, it’s more a question of to what extent he needs to get support from the governor to move forward in that area,” Arnowitt said. “It is clear that the governor’s office is going to be involved in policy going forward.”
Arnowitt said that at the time of Quigley’s resignation, Wolf’s office had expressed concern about Quigley’s implementation of the Chapter 78 oil and gas regulations, and that they were going to look at “whether a more balanced approach might be needed.”
Environmentalists have raised concerns the pending regulations for the conventional oil and gas industry will thrown out as part of a budget deal between the Wolf administration and the legislature.
“I’m not sure what the status is of those rules,” McDonnell says. “I know the governor’s office has been talking with the legislature on a variety of issues.”
Stephanie Wissman, executive director of the Associated Petroleum Industries of Pennsylvania, a division of the American Petroleum Institute, did not comment directly on McDonnell’s appointment, saying only, “We will continue to work with the administration on important issues facing the industry and the Commonwealth.”