Friday, December 30, 2016

Pivot Points 2017: Facts Will Lead Us To Better Decisions On Protecting The Environment

Heading into a new year, it’s worth laying out a few facts that might help guide state policymakers into making better decisions about supporting environmental and natural resource programs in Pennsylvania.
These facts have one thing in common-- they are facts, stubborn as they may be-- and if these realities are accepted like they should be-- environmental and natural resource programs will no longer be thought of as “extras” to be cut at will.
Instead, they will be thought of as what they are-- jobs programs that drive local economies, while solving real environmental problems.
Please consider--
-- DEP’s Personnel Budget Has Already Been Cut 40 Percent, Cuts Don’t Equal Efficiency: If budget cuts equaled more efficient government operations, then DEP should be 40 percent more efficient than it was 14 years ago because DEP’s General Fund budget has been cut 40 percent and is now below 1994-95 levels.  
Gov. Wolf’s action December 16 to cut another 290 positions means DEP’s staff losses are approaching one-third of 2002-03 levels.
This means job creators can expect delays in getting permits, although more on that later.  Fewer staff, means more delays.  It isn’t rocket science.
These cuts have also resulted in a fundamental shift in the burden of funding these programs.  
The shift puts the burden on business and local government permit applicants because funding has to come from somewhere to keep the permit programs running, albeit at reduced levels
DEP’s budget is now just 22 percent General Fund, 28 percent federal funds and 50 percent from permit review and annual permit administration fees, the reverse of what it was a decade ago.
Investments in technology that would actually make the permit process more efficient, but just as effective are down 30 percent from where they were a decade ago.
DEP’s Drinking Water Protection, PennVEST, Chesapeake Bay, Stormwater Pollution Control, Air Quality and Surface Mining programs have ALL been criticized as inadequate by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the federal Office of Surface Mining in the last year for not meeting minimum federal requirements due to the lack of staff and other resources.
At the same time, a 2015 Penn State poll found that 90.7 percent of Pennsylvanians surveyed would support increasing state funds to conserve and protect open space, clean water, natural areas, wildlife habitats, parks, historic sites, forests, and farms.
Knowing these facts, is it logical to continue believing cutting DEP’s budget is making them more efficient?  Or that these cuts have no consequences on permit review times and aren’t holding up local, private job-creating projects?
The most expensive item in permit reviews-- people-- have already been cut at DEP, and cut drastically.
Recognize now there are no free lunches or free permit reviews, but new investments in the right place COULD help significantly.
-- Parks, Recreation, Land Conservation Add Billions To PA’s Economy: Recent economic studies show parks, recreation and land conservation support tens of thousands of jobs and contribute billions to Pennsylvania’s economy--
-- The farmland in just one county-- Lancaster-- provides $676 million in annual environmental and economic benefits-- water resource protection, recreation, flood protection, tourism-- NOT counting the agricultural products they produce; and
--  cleaning and greening vacant city land through a LandCare-type program can return $224 for every $1 invested in direct economic benefits-- increasing housing values, stormwater reduction and even a decrease in gun violence.
Parks, protected farmland and open space aren’t just nice, they work hard for our communities in many ways.
Knowing these facts, is it logical to continue to cut and divert funds from programs like recreation, land conservation and DCNR in ways that hurt clearly hurt local job creators and take away important local economic generators?  
-- Green Infrastructure Solves Today’s Water Pollution Problems: The top 3 causes of water pollution in Pennsylvania’s 20,149 miles of polluted streams and rivers are: agricultural runoff, abandoned mine drainage and stormwater runoff, not municipal sewage plants.
Thirty years of experience tells us green infrastructure-- forested buffers, stormwater infiltration areas, porous pavement, parks and recreation areas, passive mine drainage treatment, stream restoration and preserved land-- offer a cheaper, more effective way to deal with the water pollution problems we face today.
These experiences have been documented by the Western PA Conversancy, LandStudies and Chesapeake Bay Foundation-PA.
Philadelphia, Lancaster, Harrisburg, Pittsburgh, and Lycoming, Monroe and York counties and many other communities are turning to green infrastructure with multiple benefits to meet water quality goals, improve recreation and achieve other objectives with a single investment.
Note that agricultural best management practices (green infrastructure) has accounted for 75 percent of the nitrogen pollution reduction in the Pennsylvania portion of the Chesapeake Bay Watershed, while municipal sewage plants generate about 11 percent.
A recent study shows using green infrastructure to help cleanup the Pennsylvania portion of the Chesapeake Bay Watershed would result in a $6.2 billion annual economic benefit to the state’s economy.
As the study of Lancaster farmland shows, there are real, measurable economic and environmental benefits from green infrastructure-- $676 million worth every year in Lancaster County alone.
While bricks and mortar solutions, like manure treatment technologies, seem to offer big, shiny solutions, their ongoing operation and maintenance costs actually make them a more expensive option and control just 16 percent of just one of three significant water pollution issues we face.
Knowing these facts, policymakers should stop wasting time looking for some techno magic bullet, and focus on what 30 years of experience in Pennsylvania says works, but deliver those solutions in new and innovative ways; especially because Pennsylvania is under mandates in federal law and by the federal courts to cleanup our rivers and streams?
-- Harness The Power Of Local Partnerships To Solve Pollution Problems: Seventeen years worth of experience with the Growing Greener Watershed Restoration Program has conclusively demonstrated supporting local watershed groups-- volunteers-- and their partnerships will not only more than DOUBLE the state’s investment in water quality improvement projects, but they will deliver the right kind of green infrastructure solutions.  
Every dollar invested by the state has been more than matched by $1.25 in local contributions to projects.  This is the power of partnerships.
In addition to doubling your money, local people taking a proactive role in cleaning up local streams promotes a stewardship ethic that will extend to other community projects; something no state-paid, outside contractor can in any way match.
Knowing these facts, does it continue to make sense to cut funding for Growing Greener Watershed Restoration Projects and divert funding to other purposes; especially when Pennsylvania is under mandates in federal law and by the federal courts to cleanup our rivers and streams?
-- Eliminating Prevailing Wage Would Stretch Existing Resources By Up To 30 Percent: Eliminating the prevailing wage requirement-- the state-mandated minimum wages groups with state grants must pay workers for construction activities-- would mean up to 30 percent of the existing funding for watershed restoration or mine drainage treatment projects could now be used for projects instead of paying wages not subject to competitive bids.
Overall, groups estimate the prevailing wage mandate costs Pennsylvania taxpayers $1 billion a year.
Knowing these facts, wouldn’t a good first step to expanding funding for green infrastructure be to actually use up to 30 percent more of the existing state funding for projects,  rather than to fulfill an uncompetitive mandate the state imposed on itself?
-- Renewable Energy, Energy Efficiency Reduce Consumer Costs, Add Jobs:  Energy efficiency and clean energy employs from 53,175 workers to over 66,000 workers at 5,900 clean energy companies in Pennsylvania, depending on your method of counting.  
Either way, that’s a big number.  In 2015, the U.S. Energy Information Administration reported there were 4,780 workers employed in mining coal in Pennsylvania, down from 7,938 in 2014-- a 16.4 percent decrease.
The Commonwealth’s existing Energy Efficiency Resource Standard has resulted in the state’s utilities achieving a 2TWh/year energy savings cumulatively through May 2015 with a reported benefit-cost ratio of 1 to 1.64.
The PUC’s 2015 Energy Efficiency Potential Study for Pennsylvania shows the maximum achievable potential cumulative energy savings is 13.2 percent (relative to the June 2009-May 2010 baseline) by 2025.
Groups as diverse as the nonprofit Philadelphia Energy Coordinating Agency and the Office of Consumer Advocate have been recommending energy efficiency as the cleanest, most cost effective way to solve the state’s energy problems for years.
PJM, the 13-state electricity grid that serves Pennsylvania, found in a special study that increasing renewable energy penetration to 20-30 percent of the grid supply would result in electricity production cost savings of $49.50 to $70.60 per megawatt hour.
PJM also found that as a result of increasing renewable energy penetration on the grid, wholesale electricity prices to consumers would decrease from 4.2 percent to 21.5 percent from business as usual
Knowing these facts, why continue with business as usual?  Let’s find creative ways to direct existing resources, like the Utility Gross Receipts Tax, business technical assistance programs (PennTAP, EMAP) and other state resources now treating the symptoms of energy use to investments in energy efficiency that result in multiple benefits of saving energy, permanently reducing energy use (and bills) for businesses and residents and producing jobs.
-- Coal Cannot Compete With Natural Gas In Today’s Market: The demand for coal to generate electricity in Pennsylvania dropped by 44 percent between 2007 to 2015, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, driven by fuel market fundamentals (in particular in-Pennsylvania natural gas production) and environmental regulations that in most cases were put in place years ago.
But, it was only when a much cheaper and plentiful fuel alternative became available-- natural gas in Pennsylvania-- that the fuel market began to change in fundamental ways.
There are enough active permits for natural gas-fired power plants now being considered by DEP to replace ALL coal-fired power plants in Pennsylvania.  
These applications represent investors and the private market speaking loudly about the fundamental change natural gas supplies have brought to electric generation.
The Public Utility Commission projected in August, natural gas-fired power plants will surpass coal in the generation of electricity in Pennsylvania in 2016.
Knowing these facts, how far are Pennsylvania policymakers willing to go to fight uphill against free market forces in the United States by picking winners and losers?  Or provide subsidies to certain electric generation fuels at taxpayer expense?  
Jobs are the real issue.  No one has paid any attention to supporting the actual people who are affected by job loss in this industry in terms of retraining, education and placement in new jobs.  Someone should.
--On-Time Permit Reviews Are A Shared Responsibility Between DEP And Consultants: Even with 40 percent cuts in its General Fund budget, DEP makes its permit review deadlines on the 37,000 or so applications it reviews each year 89 percent of the time.
This record is in the face of the fact that 80 percent of applications coming in the door at DEP are incomplete and the 30 percent have technical deficiencies.
Knowing these facts, the RIGHT question to ask is how to keep the 11 percent that miss the deadlines on time, and better yet, ahead of review deadlines.
Obviously, getting in complete applications is a key first step.  Why not create a scorecard for each consultant submitting application to DEP just on the completeness issue and release it to the public?  DEP already has the information and its staff knows, but the public doesn’t.  
Why not use this information and let the free market decide which consultants to use?
Why not do more to train consultants on how to prepare applications or ask them what they need to succeed, rather than putting the burden entirely on an already overburdened and under-resourced DEP?
Shared responsibilities for success mean there must be shared solutions.  In other words, it isn’t all DEP’s fault or responsibility.
-- Endangered Species Permit Reviews Require Follow-Ups Just 2 Percent Of The Time:  A recent study of 16,600 DEP permits requiring reviews for impacts on endangered and threatened animal and plant species and species of special concern found that in just 2 percent of cases-- 339-- were follow-up surveys required to confirm whether a species is present.
Research on the federal Endangered Species Act and the experience of the State Wildlife Grants Program suggest that threats to species and habitats can move very quickly, and protection has a better chance of leading to recovery if these impacts are addressed early.
Paying attention to species that are in decline, and taking reasonable steps to reverse this trend, can benefit both wildlife and the regulated community by preventing the need to list species as endangered and for the more involved regulatory requirements that can accompany such a designation.
Knowing these facts, is it logical to eliminate or severely restrict endangered species reviews when 98 percent of applications require no follow up, especially when DCNR just significantly upgraded the online tool used for these reviews?  The tail is really wagging the dog on this one.
-- States Have A Right To Determine Their Own Standards, Not Blindly Follow The Feds: Asking whether Pennsylvania’s environmental laws are more stringent than federal laws-- Yes or No-- like a recent Senate Resolution did is the WRONG question.  
It’s wrong because it implies the feds-- Congress and the President-- always have Pennsylvania’s best interests at heart.  They don’t.
That’s why states show leadership and act in their own interests, and with respect to protecting the environment, far ahead of the federal government. That’s called states controlling their own futures.
On the other hand, if you believe the feds have all the answers, then you need to accept what the feds are saying about Pennsylvania’s environmental programs.  
DEP’s Drinking Water Protection, PennVEST, Chesapeake Bay, Stormwater Pollution Control, Air Quality and Surface Mining programs have ALL been criticized as inadequate by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the federal Office of Surface Mining in the last year for not meeting minimum FEDERAL requirements.
In announcing Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt as EPA Administrator, the Trump Transition Team was careful to say: “Pruitt agrees with President-elect Trump that states should have the sovereignty to make many regulatory decisions for their own markets.”
Knowing these facts, the RIGHT question to ask is what is REALLY driving private compliance costs?
To make environmental regulations and policies less costly to comply with in the first place, use Gov. Ridge’s Executive Order 1996-1 that’s dormant, but still in effect and requires state agencies like DEP to evaluate existing regulations and policies related to costs and effectiveness and whether they go beyond federal requirements without justification.
At DEP in 1996, the Order resulted in a systematic review of regulations carried out over several years through the Regulatory Basics Initiative.
It worked through a transparent process with DEP’s advisory committees and the public on section by section reviews of regulations and technical guidance.  It also solicited suggestions from business and industry on which specific provisions were burdensome without protecting the environment.
The result of that effort was saving individuals, businesses and local governments $138 million in compliance costs, the elimination of nearly 5,000 pages of outdated regulations and more than 1,700 pages of unneeded technical guidance and 29 packages of regulatory changes.
We need to go through a similar, transparent process today because we’ve added new regulations and policies since it was last done the last time and now DEP has far fewer resources.
Simple, Basic Principles
All these pivot points are based on three fundamental lessons: clean is better than dirty, saving money is better than wasting it and being organized and efficient is better than not.
Hopefully bringing a few facts to the coming debate over Pennsylvania’s environmental and natural resource programs will yield better results for everyone.
Related Stories:
Analysis: State Environmental Agency Funding Hasn’t Caught Up To 1994

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