Get ready for a wild ride.
That’s the best way to describe what could happen when the Pennsylvania General Assembly begins a new, two-year session this week. It has only been two months since we wrapped up the 2015-16 session, which was marked by historic legislative attacks on environmental protection, but next year already portends to even worse outcomes.
While I don’t have a crystal ball and can’t tell exactly which bills will advance and which won’t, here are some major stories to watch for that could have an outsized impact on environmental protection:
- High stakes around the Governor’s veto: Governor Tom Wolf’s veto pen is what stood in the way of the General Assembly gaming the Commonwealth’s regulatory process so that legislators could unilaterally hold up new rules on polluters. The threat of a veto held up a number of other potential environmental rollbacks. But the November election has changed the dynamic of the General Assembly, providing for a one-party veto-proof majority in the Senate, and a very achievable 13 votes away from a veto-proof majority in the House. The Governor’s decision whether or not to veto legislation now becomes even higher stakes.
- Protecting Act 129: Act 129 is Pennsylvania’s central energy efficiency program that is saving ratepayers money and cutting pollution. Yet, at the behest of a handful of large companies, the Senate passed SB 805 in October, which would dramatically cut funding for the program and lower its energy efficiency goals. The House ran out of time to advance the legislation, but the bill will be back in 2017 with more time to succeed.
- Closing Pennsylvania’s solar borders: Pennsylvania’s Alternative Energy Portfolio Standard (AEPS) has a loophole that allows utilities to take credit for solar projects built in other states. Bipartisan legislation advanced in the House and Senate last session to close this loophole and ensure that solar projects are built in-state. Look for similar legislation to move in the new session.
- New subsidies for fossil fuels and nuclear plants: Three states have extended new subsidies to nuclear power plants, in part to keep zero-carbon electricity flowing to ratepayers. Pennsylvania’s aging nuclear power plants are in a similar situation, and may require new legislation to keep them open. In addition, numerous bills aimed at subsidizing natural gas were proposed last session and may move under the new-look General Assembly.
- Water pollution issues take center stage: Water pollution issues dominated the headlines in Pennsylvania last session with little legislative action. Whether its lead, PFOA’s, cancerous fish in the Susquehanna, or cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay watershed, numerous high profile water pollution issues are knocking down the doors of the General Assembly. With a new two-year session to come up with solutions, there is little excuse for inaction.
- Keeping electronics out of landfills: Pennsylvania’s covered electronics recycling market is broken. New electronics are smaller and lighter than previous generations, yet the recycling mandate on electronics manufacturers are set by more recent sales. As a result, recycling quotas are being met earlier in the year, leaving many municipalities without a viable electronics recycling option. Without legislative change, more and more old televisions and large electronics will end up on street corners and landfills, potentially causing pollution concerns, in addition to the eyesore. A number of bills were filed last session to fix the issue and more legislative action is expected in 2017.
Stay tuned as we keep you informed as to what happens next in the State Legislature.