Wednesday, February 19, 2014

House DEP Budget Hearing Tackles Climate Change, Chesapeake Bay Other Issues

The House Appropriations Committee hearing on DEP’s budget request Wednesday covered much the same ground as the Senate hearing Tuesday, but did get into the issue of climate change, Chesapeake Bay cleanup, water and wastewater infrastructure funding and air quality issues related to natural gas drilling the Senate did not.
House members asked questions similar to the Senate related to: the Alternative Fuels/Natural Gas Vehicle grants, cuts to the Delaware River Basin Commission funding, fee increases for oil and gas wells, stream clearance to prevent flooding, additional leasing of DCNR land for natural gas development, regional consistently in permit decision-making, the Permit Decision Guarantee Program and the Act 13 court decision.
Click Here for a copy of Secretary Abruzzo’s written budget testimony.  Click Here for video of House Appropriations Hearing.
Here’s a quick summary of the unique issues raised during the House hearing--
Climate Change: In response to a general question from Rep. Markosek (D-Allegheny), Minority Chair of the House Appropriations Committee, about climate change, Secretary Abruzzo said climate change is real and there are man-made factors causing the problem.  He said DEP does things every day to deal with the issue and the Commonwealth has a good story to tell, reducing greenhouse gas emissions by tens of thousands of tons over the last several years.  He added he is open to discussions on how to do more.  Rep. Markosek said it was refreshing to hear the Secretary’s answer which was a different one than he and his members have heard before.
Rep. Vitali (D-Delaware), Minority Chair of the House Environmental Resources and Energy Committee, said Pennsylvania needs to do more than shift from coal to natural gas to help solve the climate change problem.
Chesapeake Bay Issues: Rep. Miller (R-York), Majority Chair House Environmental Resources and Energy Committee, thanked the Secretary for becoming personally involved in Chesapeake Bay issues and the Chesapeake Bay Commission, noting the November meeting will be in Williamsport in part due to Marcellus Shale drilling issues.  Asked for background on water quality monitoring and drilling, Secretary Abruzzo said DEP and other agencies monitor water quality over the region and highlighted a recent report from the Susquehanna River Basin Commission showing water quality has improved in the last few years.  He said Act 13 and proposed changes to Chapter 78 drilling regulations have or will put in place additional protections for water quality.
Water/Wastewater Infrastructure Funding: In response to a question by Rep. Santarsiero (D-Bucks) about plans to fund improvements to water and wastewater treatment facilities, Secretary Abruzzo said he was familiar with the problems in Bucks County and, working with local officials, he said he believes they found a solution to the local funding issues, especially for smaller water and wastewater systems there.   Dana Aunkst, Executive Deputy for Programs, said tools like full-cost funding in calculating local user rates could go a long way toward reducing the infrastructure funding gap in Pennsylvania from $25 billion to as low as $6 billion.  Unfortunately, he said, legislation implementing tools like full-cost funding has not gone anywhere in the General Assembly.
Flooding Along Delaware River: Rep. Petri (R-Bucks) said flooding along the Delaware River would have been reduced if the Delaware River Basin Commission had reduced its releases from reservoirs in the upper part of the watershed and expressed his concerns about DRBC’s lack of action on the issue.  Secretary Abruzzo said it was important to let the other states involved in DRBC know the problems Pennsylvania has on flooding and DRBC flow policies and has gotten personally involved in the workings of the Commission.
Reuse Of AMD Water: In response to a question from Rep. Carroll (D-Monore) on DEP’s position on Senate Bill 411 (Kasunic-D-Somerset) allowing the reuse of abandoned mine drainage for drilling operations, Secretary Abruzzo said DEP has supported the legislation because it has the potential of encouraging the reuse of mine water instead of freshwater for these operations.  At the same time, Dana Aunkst said he is aware of concerns about liability for using the water, but he said he believes the current language solves those problems.
Strength Of Oil And Gas Program: In response to a general question from Rep. Dean (D-Montgomery) about the Oil and Gas regulatory program, Secretary Abruzzo said an evaluation of Pennsylvania’s program by the independent STRONGER organization gave the state good marks.  He also noted DEP is now inspecting wells more frequently than it has at any time in its history.
Air Quality Issues In Drilling:  Rep. Boback (R-Columbia) asked if DEP does pre-drilling air quality testing and testing around the natural gas compressor stations.  Secretary Abruzzo said DEP has done several studies of air quality and drilling and natural gas infrastructure in the southwest and northcentral regions of the state and has not found any issues of concern.  He also noted DEP also does spot testing around the state through its mobile lab and there is also a longer term study of air quality underway in the southwest that should be done by the end of the year.
Halliburton Penalty: Rep. Christiana (R-Beaver) asked why DEP imposed the $1.8 million fine on Halliburton Tuesday even though the violations were on paperwork and not anything that harmed the environment.  Secretary Abruzzo said DEP should not be a paper tiger, especially where there were intentional violations of the agency’s regulations like in this case.  He said it also sends a message to anyone else not to violate the rules.
Auditor General Marcellus Audit: Rep. Grove (R-York) asked about the status of the review the Auditor General is doing on DEP’s Oil and Gas Program.  Secretary Abruzzo said the audit is not yet done, but he has made a commitment to the Auditor General to seriously review all recommendations developed in the review.
Allegheny County CSO Issues: Rep. Wheatley (D-Allegheny) asked if there are any specific budget line items that could support ALCOSAN and the projects its needs to respond to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency order to eliminate combined sewer overflows.  Dana Aunkst said some costs for planning would be eligible under the Act 537 planning program, but acknowledged funding has been zeroed out for that line item.  He noted additional funding is available for wastewater projects from the Commonwealth Financing Authority funded by Act 13 drilling impact fees.  Aunkst added the size of Allegheny County’s funding needs are unique.

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