Don't Let the Pennsylvania Legislature Trade Away Clean Air and Water Protections

On July 27, 2017, the Pennsylvania Senate approved a revenue package that will further decimate the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), threatening public health and damaging our environment in the process. By the slimmest of margins, the Senate voted 26-24 to adopt amendments to the Tax Code bill – House Bill 542 – which does achieve one of Governor Wolf’s long-sought goals, a severance tax on the extraction of natural gas from unconventional wells. On its own, this is a worthy policy goal. However, in exchange for what amounts to a paltry revenue increase, the Senate approved a series of environmental riders wanted by industry groups that gut DEP’s ability to act in the public interest. This is unacceptable; the state budget is not the place to debate critical protections for our air, water, and public health. DEP’s budget has already been slashed by 40 percent over the last 13 years – resulting in the loss of over 22 percent of its staff – and HB 542 would undermine DEP’s authority going forward and pose an immediate threat to Governor Wolf’s proposed commonsense controls on methane pollution.

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In February, DEP published proposed general permits (GP-5 and GP-5A) that would establish cost-effective controls on methane pollution from new sources in the unconventional natural gas industry. These permits will protect public health, the environment, and Pennsylvania’s economy. Following extensive input from stakeholders and members of the public, the 120-day public comment period on the permits closed on June 5. While DEP is currently working to finalize the permits, HB 542 would allow the General Assembly to unilaterally weaken or eliminate them. Instead of working with the agency or going through the standard legislative process, this bill would create a new “Air Quality Permit Advisory Committee” – dominated by members handpicked by the legislature – that would have ultimate authority to approve (or disapprove) the permits once finalized. The bill prohibits DEP from submitting the permits to this “Committee” before 2018 and would allow industry-backed lawmakers to effectively veto these much-needed commonsense protections. This unprecedented hurdle to environmental protection is not grounded in science or designed to protect public health, it’s a transparent political game to benefit the gas industry.

Another amendment to the bill directs DEP to establish a program for third-party review of any permits issued by the agency, effectively privatizing the oil and gas permitting process in the Commonwealth. DEP would be required to contract with third-party permit reviewers, and the bill’s language includes no provisions for any supervision of these individuals or for accountability. Disturbingly, there are no conflict-of-interest provisions in the bill and permit applicants are allowed to handpick their own reviewer among those contracted with DEP. That means there is nothing to prevent a consultant from reviewing his own application. Furthermore, there are no provisions dealing with public participation, meaning there is no guarantee that third-parties handling permit applications will hold a public hearing or allow for public comment. This ill-advised approach will cede our public servants’ responsibility to protect public health and the environment to unaccountable private interests. It will undermine the integrity of the permit review process while limiting public participation and allowing for rampant self-dealing.

Finally, there is a provision stating that any permit for unconventional oil and gas development is simply “deemed approved” unless DEP denies it within the relevant timeframe (which varies from 30 to 45 to 60 days depending on the situation). Even if the relevant review period is extended for cause, this provision would require that DEP refund the permit review fee to the applicant. This radical approach puts the burden on DEP – intentionally underfunded and understaffed – to rush its permit review process and allows for the automatic approval of permits that have not been subject to appropriate agency review or public scrutiny.

Put it all together, and it is clear that HB 542 is a direct assault on Pennsylvania citizens’ fundamental, constitutionally-protected rights to clean air and pure water. Rolling back environmental and public health protections won’t balance the budget – all it does is give drillers a license to pollute. Governor Wolf has political concerns over his reelection and, in his single-minded pursuit of a severance tax, he has cut a bad deal for the people of the Commonwealth that needlessly trades away clean air and water protections. This deal should be rejected as an affront to our fundamental rights and to responsible stewardship of our public natural resources.


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