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Tuesday, 22 August 2017 06:43

Pennsylvania Could Set Precedent for Using Budget to Gut Environmental Protections

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Ten years into the shale boom, Pennsylvania is now the second largest gas-producing state and the only one without a severance tax -- robbing the state of much-needed revenue for years.Ten years into the shale boom, Pennsylvania is now the second largest gas-producing state and the only one without a severance tax -- robbing the state of much-needed revenue for years. (Photo: WCN 24 /7 )NADIA STEINZOR FOR BUZZFLASH AT TRUTHOUT

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Usually when elected officials work on budgets, their aim is to reduce deficits and fund government programs. But then there's the Pennsylvania Senate -- which recently loaded a budget and revenue bill with provisions to gut environmental protections and help the oil and gas industry.

With support from Governor Wolf, the deal would take authority over oil and gas permit decisions away from the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) and, in a blatant power grab, give it to the legislature instead. Private contractors hand-picked by drillers would review permit applications. Permits would be fast-tracked regardless of the environmental risks posed and the omission of required information by operators. Public funds would support private projects to expand gas infrastructure and consumption.

These provisions seem plucked straight from industry's playbook of "drill more, faster, everywhere." Their adoption would kill progress on Governor Wolf's promise to reduce pollution of methane and health-harming chemicals from oil and gas operations. DEP's ability to oversee the industry, enforce regulations, and hold polluters accountable would be even further reduced after decades of budget and staff cuts by the legislature.

Local and statewide groups have widely decried the measures and their back-door inclusion in a budget bill. Even a conservative group said they would decrease government efficiency and prevent industry accountability.

Yet these special favors still aren't enough for the Marcellus Shale Coalition (MSC), which is fighting even the paltry severance tax included in the Senate bill and demanding it be kept out of the future PA House revenue bill. Ten years into the shale boom, Pennsylvania is now the second largest gas-producing state and the only one without a severance tax -- robbing the state of much-needed revenue for years.

According to a new report by the non-partisan think tank Resources for the Future (RFF), only about 2% of the value of oil and gas produced in Pennsylvania since 2013 has been collected through local impact fees on drilling. The Senate's severance tax proposal would raise those revenues to only 3% and do little to help close the state's severe and ever-growing budget gap. (RFF also concludes it would not deter drilling investments and activities, contrary to MSC claims.) 

But regardless of what happens with the severance tax, passage of anti-environmental provisions will be terribly costly for Pennsylvanians, who will inevitably face even more air pollution, damage to water supplies, and health problems brought on by the oil and gas industry.

Already, oil and gas pollution in Pennsylvania is linked to 30,000 childhood asthma attacks annually and puts eight counties over the federal level of concern for cancer. Operators waste enough gas to heat 65,000 Pennsylvania homes, but don't want to be required to capture it.

When the PA House reconvenes work in a few weeks, they will take up a revenue bill of their own. With all House members, half of State Senators, and Governor Wolf facing reelection in 2018, everyone is jockeying for a favorable position on the budget. If legislators and the Governor let the anti-environmental provisions stand, they will demonstrate to voters that the gas industry's interests matter more to them than the public's.