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Proxy Battles, Bad Omens, and Small Victories: A 2017 Policy Retrospective

A war against environmental protection is being waged in Pennsylvania and 2017 was about positioning for the next round of legislative attacks. 
Proxy battles were waged through negotiations on the state budget and a proposed severance tax on natural gas, signaling larger efforts to come in 2018. And the legislature continued its dismantling of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP). 
The callous legislative attacks on foundational clean air, water, and public lands policies continue and are unrelenting.
Nevertheless, it’s important to not lose sight of the victories in 2017 that are having tangible impacts and will improve local air quality and boost renewable energy and energy efficiency in the Commonwealth. Certainly, defending our communities and ecologies from bad legislation is a top priority, but advancing good legislation has been critical to re-engaging the public and policy community to show what good environmental laws can do for people’s health, jobs, and living space.
In retrospect, the headlines below best summarize the state of environmental policy in 2017:
  • Gutting basic protections against oil and gas industry pollution. A major proxy battle over oil and gas regulations was (and is still being) fought through the severance tax debate. The Senate and Governor agreed to a deal in the summer that would have levied a small severance tax in exchange for weakening the DEP’s ability to enact strong permits for industrial activity. In particular, it would have shifted some of DEP’s permitting authority to industry-chosen third-party reviewers, as well as forced DEP to approve all permits within a certain period of time, no matter if they’re deficient. This bill died in the House, but momentum for gutting DEP permits still remains.
  • Allowing unlimited methane pollution. The Governor has made it a priority to implement the Commonwealth’s first ever limits on methane pollution and the legislature is doing its best to stop that from happening. A provision to give the legislature the ability to veto any methane regulations was passed by the Senate and proposed in the House. DEP is advancing new methane limits on new oil and gas infrastructure as I write this blog, setting up a significant battle in 2018 over its success, as well as efforts to implement methane limits on existing oil and gas operations.
  • The continued dismantling of DEP. The FY2017-18 state budget was similar to the last decade in that DEP’s budget was cut another 6 to 7 percent, depending on the line item. This adds to the 40 percent already cut in DEP’s budget over the last ten years. This hollowing out is having tangible impact, as we see fewer inspectors who can ensure water supplies are safe, fewer inspections of oil and gas activity, fewer permit reviewers, and a smaller number of scientists studying new sources of pollution. For a state with a long history of environmental degradation, it’s a stunning and underreported story with long-term consequences, and these shortages leave everyone at risk.
  • New subsidies for nuclear plants put on hold. Nuclear industry efforts for new subsidies benefitting its five Pennsylvania plants didn’t gain traction with the legislature in 2017. Instead, the industry pushed the legislature to provide its toothless support for the Department of Energy’s (DOE) request to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) to immediately provide support for aging coal and nuclear plants. Depending on what FERC ultimately does with DOE’s request dictates whether the nuclear industry will apply significant pressure to get state subsidies in 2018.
  • Solar receives a legislative boost. Solar energy finally received support from Harrisburg. A provision in the state budget (Administrative Code, House Bill 118) includes language to “close Pennsylvania’s solar borders.” What this means is that utilities must source solar energy projects housed in Pennsylvania to meet the Commonwealth’s solar target (0.5 percent by 2020), rather than being able to source outside of the state. Under previous law, utilities were sourcing more than 70 percent of its projects from outside the state, stealing jobs and projects from Pennsylvania’s solar industry.
  • Commercial PACE builds momentum. Commercial PACE (C-PACE), which provides new financing mechanisms for municipalities wanting to support commercial buildings becoming more energy efficient, took steps forward in 2017. The bill is cosponsored by nearly 2/3 of the state Senate and is poised for passage in 2018.
  • Protecting the Delaware River Basin from fracking. The Delaware River Basin Commission took its next steps toward officially banning oil and gas drilling in the Delaware River basin. While much of this process will play out through 2018, it was an important step toward protecting the important headwaters of the Delaware and the ecology it supports. As it currently stands, the proposed regulations aren’t perfect and would still allow fracking fluid to travel from and through the basin. As such, more work needs to be done on the regulations, but the ban on fracking is a major step toward protecting this important water resource for the state.
Many of these issues and battles will continue well into 2018, leaving no rest for the weary. There are bad omens signaling further attacks in the near future, but public engagement, perseverance, good science, and strong advocacy are helping turn the tide and beat back, at least some, bad legislation. 
I personally started 2017 much more cynically toward what was to come. It had been a bruising 2016 and environmental protection was poised for more rollbacks. But I end 2017 on a positive note. I see a re-energized environmental community and a general public catching on to the bad deals they’re being dealt. Furthermore, I see pathways to advancing new protections and stopping the agents of greed and environmental destruction from succeeding in making Pennsylvania a wild west for industry and pollution.
Onward and upward.

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