As fiscal year ends, lawmakers weigh controversial energy and environmental bills

  • Jon Hurdle

Republican leaders in the Pennsylvania legislature are seeking approval of a clutch of bills that environmentalists say would dismantle protections against environmental damage by the state’s energy industry, make it harder for Pennsylvania to comply with the Obama plan to cut power-plant emissions, and hand more control over regulation to pro-industry lawmakers.

Industry groups and their allies say the measures are necessary to save jobs and protect Pennsylvania’s energy industry from over-reach by federal and state regulators.

Two of the bills passed a House committee and the full Senate this week. The votes come a few weeks after the departure in May of former Department of Environmental Protection Secretary John Quigley, who environmentalists claim was forced to resign because he was too friendly to green causes.

Quigley has been replaced, at least temporarily, by Patrick McDonnell, a 19-year veteran of the DEP, who is seen as less likely to antagonize the energy industry, and perhaps the administration of Governor Tom Wolf, than his predecessor apparently did.

McDonnell told StateImpact Pennsylvania that he will seek the nomination, suggesting that he could become a permanent replacement for Quigley.

Here are some of the major issues at stake:

Climate change: SB 1195 Would extend from 100 days to 180 days the time allowed for the legislature to review the Wolf administration’s plans for reducing power-plant emissions to meet the requirements of the federal Clean Power Plan– President Obama’s major climate change initiative.

Republican Sen. Don White of the 41st District, a cosponsor of the bill, says power industry jobs are already threatened by federal regulation, and that lawmakers need extra time to examine Pennsylvania’s plan for complying with the law.

The Clean Power Coalition, an alliance of environmental groups including PennFuture, the Sierra Club, and the Natural Resources Defense Council, says the bill would “subvert” the will of most Pennsylvanians, and significantly delay the state’s compliance with the plan.

The bill was overwhelmingly passed by the full Senate on Wednesday and now goes to the House for consideration.

Oil and gas regulations: SB 279 Would establish a council to advise the DEP on policy that recognizes the difference between conventional oil and gas production and the unconventional production that has come with hydraulic fracturing. The bill’s supporters say that current regulation does not recognize the differences between the two sides of the industry, and that there should be a separate framework for conventional operations. The bill was given a last-minute amendment, introduced by Republican Rep. Kathy Rapp, that would exempt the conventional industry from the DEP’s Chapter 78 oil and gas regulations. The amended bill was easily passed by the House Environmental Resources and Energy Committee on Wednesday.

Regulatory process: SB 562 Would increase legislative oversight of the regulatory review process by requiring committee chairs to send copies of proposed regulations to all members within five days of receiving the documents. Committee members would be able to submit individual comments to the chair or to the Independent Regulatory Review Commission, which reviews state regulations to ensure they are in the public interest. Environmentalists worry the bill would allow lawmakers to block any regulations they disagree with.

Energy efficiency: SB 805 Would allow large commercial and industrial energy users to opt out of participating in energy-efficiency programs, as required by Act 129. Supporters say companies have been forced to pay into energy efficiency and conservation plans but have got little benefit from the payments because they have been implementing their own energy-efficiency programs. Allowing such an opt-out would increase carbon emissions and increase energy prices for other consumers, opponents say.

Gas severance tax: Wolf is pressing for a 6.5% severance tax on natural gas production in his 2016/17 budget, despite losing his fight for such a tax at a lower 5% rate in last year’s budget. The tax would raise $218 million for the general fund; would give public schools a dedicated funding source and reduce their dependence on property taxes, the governor’s office argues.

“The governor believes it is wrong that Pennsylvania is the only natural gas producing state in the country without a severance tax,” said Mark Nicastre, a spokesman for Wolf.

In April the state’s Independent Fiscal Office issued an analysis saying Wolf’s proposed tax would be among the highest in the nation. The natural gas industry has vigorously lobbied against the proposal, arguing it would come at time when drillers are already hurting from low commodity prices. Nicastre said Wolf wants to work with the legislature where both parties have proposed other versions of a severance tax.

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