Thursday, March 26, 2015

5 Things We Learned From Senate And House Hearings On DEP’s Budget

The Senate and House Appropriations Committee hearings on Gov. Wolf’s proposed budget for the Department of Environmental Protection are now complete.  Here are five things we learned as a result of those hearings--
1. Pipeline Task Force: DEP is in the process of forming a Task Force to look at ways of promoting cooperation and reducing the environmental impacts of the 25,000 to 30,000 miles of natural gas pipelines expected to be developed in Pennsylvania over the next few years.  DEP is not looking at expanding its regulatory role over pipelines, or taking over the responsibilities of the Public Utility Commission on safety.  The logical questions now are: Who will be on the Task Force?  What will their specific charge be?  Will their meetings be open to the public?
2. Pennsylvania Not Meeting Chesapeake Bay Cleanup Commitments: An open secret for the last six years or more, Acting DEP Secretary John Quigley acknowledged, to his credit, Pennsylvania is not meeting the commitments the Commonwealth made to cleanup our own rivers and streams that will result in a cleaner Chesapeake Bay.  He said more resources, more technical help and a “reboot” of the entire program are needed and promises a new plan to deal with the issue.  Several House and Senate members suggested money proposed for an alternative energy initiative would be better spent on cleaning up Pennsylvania’s own waterways.
3. DEP Has Been “Hollowed Out” With Staff Reductions: Again, to his credit, Quigley acknowledged what has been obvious, for the last six years [actually beginning in the first year of the Rendell Administration], DEP’s budget and staff has been subject to cuts far and above what other state agencies have suffered.  This is particularly true of programs to protect water quality, he said.  He noted over the last six years agency staff has been cut 14 percent while other agencies have been cut 6 percent.
4. Republicans Upset Over Handling Of Drilling Regulations: Republican members of both the Senate and House are upset over DEP’s replacement of all the members of the Oil and Gas Technical Advisory Board and about the short, 30 day comment period with no hearings to review major revisions to the proposed final versions of the Chapter 78 and Chapter 78A drilling regulations.  At a minimum, Sen. Yaw suggested extending the comment period.
5. DEP Had No Role In Shaping Severance Tax Proposal: Quigley acknowledged he and DEP had no role in drafting the Governor’s proposed natural gas severance tax, even though significant environmental funding issues were at stake.  While the proposal ended up preserving $76 million in existing environmental funding under a reenacted impact fee, environmental groups in Pennsylvania are nearly unanimous in their belief any new severance tax should include significant funding for environmental restoration of one type or another, particularly watershed cleanup and abandoned mine reclamation.  It is now absent from the proposal.
The question now is, what is the General Assembly and the Wolf Administration going to do about the holes in DEP’s budget identified by the budget hearings?
Click Here for a copy of Acting Secretary Quigley’s written testimony.
Click Here for a summary of the March 11 House budget hearing on DEP.  Click Here for a summary of the March 25 Senate budget hearing on DEP.

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