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Will Pennsylvania’s Environment Ever Be A Priority for the Legislature?

Probably no profession requires taking the long view as does that of the environmental advocate. That’s probably why I’m so fond of the proverb, “Hope springs eternal.” It reminds me of the aspect of human nature that will always seek out cause for optimism, and I hold onto it because of that possibility.   

Holding onto optimism feels a little challenging these days. Last week, the state budget that PennFuture so optimistically saw as a chance for lawmakers and the Governor to invest in a greener future, fell far short of making those investments, and the support for clean water we were hoping to see never materialized. Yes, the budget came through in important ways. The Governor and the legislature agreed to their funding priorities, none of them environmental. And perhaps, no surprise, fossil fuels made it to their list. 

This budget cycle again boosted fracking, and petrochemicals like fertilizer and plastics. We’ve bellyached a lot in this blog about the largesse the legislature has shown the petrochemical industry through subsidies and other tax giveaways, and PennFuture has documented this serious problem most recently in the third edition of our Fossil Fuel subsidy report. When it passed House Bill 732 (Act 66) last summer, state government set up $6.67 million in annual tax credits for up to four facilities that will use dry gas to produce petrochemicals or fertilizers.

Less than one year later, using the tax code legislation that accompanied last week’s approved state budget, the legislature reduced the number of facilities (from four facilities, to up to two facilities) that can qualify for the tax credits, but left the aggregate cap in place guaranteeing there will be unallocated credits. The legislation also stipulated that the Department of Revenue must give those unallocated credits to only one of the qualifying facilities. 

Like so much else about Pennsylvania’s opaque budget process, there was no transparency or forewarning that this move was afoot.  It was presumably negotiated by the main budget players – Governor Wolf, Senate Majority Leader Kim Ward, Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman, House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff, and Speaker of the House Bryan Cutler – and the closed-door process forces us to make these kinds of presumptions. What is verifiable is that the state budget and its accompanying tax and fiscal codes received a majority of votes and the Governor has signed the legislation. 

We are also left to conjecture why the tax subsidy was re-structured so that a much larger piece of the subsidy pie will go to just one petrochemical manufacturer. We are concluding that there is indeed a petrochemical interest waiting in the wings, looking to set up shop here in Pennsylvania, but they sought a much sweeter pie. Hence the legislature and Governor have structured a revised subsidy that's grown from over $6.6 million to at least $20 million each year for the next 24 years for some lucky grand prize winner. The beneficiaries of these giveaways will in turn buy fracked gas, employ workers, and transform some lucky part of our magnificent state into a petrochemical industrial nightmare.  

Some really great things could have been done with the budget this time around because state legislators and the Governor weren’t constrained by revenue availability. They have in hand $7 billion in federal money to address Covid impacts including economic recovery and stimulus. Politicians didn’t need to once again pick winners, and losers. But they did, and so lead in drinking water will go unaddressed, as will the thousands of miles of dead streams impacted by legacy pollution from coal, and they’ve also forgotten the agricultural producers under scrutiny to put more best management practices on their lands and along waterways to improve the health of the Susquehanna River. Instead, politicians decided to bank more than half of the funds, rather than investing in assets like cleaner water, or making Pennsylvania more competitive in the green economy. 

PennFuture works very hard for good outcomes, often playing defense. But the anti-environmental and anti-democracy members of the state legislature are running the show. We are grateful for the times the Governor has used his veto to stop the most egregious measures the legislature comes up with.  

PennFuture is taking some respite in an alternative pathway to meet our mission advocating for clean air and water, a healthy climate and green economy. It’s a path that runs through Washington, not through Harrisburg. President Joe Biden is artfully trying to broker a bi-partisan infrastructure package. It seems separately, he’s also attempting a complicated maneuver that may eventually get to investments that make us more climate resilient. But forgive me for being haunted by the ghost of 2013, when a sweeping cap and trade climate bill became a casualty of the Affordable Care Act.   

Another interesting proverb I’ve pondered along the way is, “Politics is the art of the possible.” Making a lot of people happy is a rarity in politics, so count me as an unhappy Pennsylvania environmental advocate for the moment. But to think that the half-baked budget this state just approved pushed the limits of what is politically possible is not something I can accept.

The lack of work done by our legislators in the budget process feels lazy at best, blatantly irresponsible at worst, lacking vision and optimism. Nor will I be able to accept any federal infrastructure package that comes to fruition, if it is devoid of green infrastructure that can help us finally deal with the climate crisis. But there is still time to work hard for, and possibly achieve, a hopeful outcome.

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