The chaotic state budget process is again moving in fits and starts in Harrisburg. And, again, the public is left to wonder how our environment will bear the brunt of political trade-offs on what should be purely fiscal decisions.
Two years ago, the state leveraged the budget to slow efforts to address climate change. Last year, budget negotiations were used to eliminate new regulations on the conventional oil and gas industry. This year, it appears members of the General Assembly and the governor are willing, in exchange for new revenues in the form of a severance tax, to sell out the integrity of environmental permitting in our state.
A budget bill passed by the Senate two weeks ago, and tacitly endorsed by the governor, undercuts agency efforts to control air emissions from the natural gas industry, and places decision-making on all environmental permits in the hands of private parties — the very same people hired by the regulated community to apply for those permits. The legislation contains no safeguards to prevent self-dealing, to ensure the qualifications of private reviewers, or to ensure that the public’s right to comment on permits will be maintained. As if that weren’t bad enough, these measures have been rushed through with no hearing or explanation prior to vote.
This is a drastic, unprecedented move that eviscerates the Department of Environmental Protection, an agency that has been chronically underfunded and understaffed for more than a decade.
Without question, there are serious issues with permitting efficiency, and those issues must be addressed. But instead of giving the agency the support it needs to improve its performance, the Senate adopted the idea of simply gutting the permitting process altogether, despite the likelihood that such a move will only increase costs and inconsistencies across the state.
In other words: Rather than proposing a thoughtful solution, our elected officials have opted to further impair the agency and undermine environmental protection. To make matters worse, this is all being done under the veil of yet another overdue budget, making it politically challenging to extricate these unrelated, harmful riders.
This year the Pennsylvania Supreme Court issued another landmark opinion underscoring the obligation that government has to protect our environment and public health — rights protected by our state constitution. At the same time, the other two branches of state government seem content to pursue a race to the bottom.
Pennsylvania deserves better. Its citizens deserve better. What’s needed is leadership on working toward real solutions that don’t needlessly trade our environment for the lure of short-term fiscal solutions. As of now, Harrisburg is headed in the wrong direction.
David Hess served as secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection from 2001 to 2003. He is the editor of PA Environment Digest, a service of Crisci Associates. Davitt Woodwell is president of the Pennsylvania Environmental Council, which has a mission to protect and restore the natural and built environments through innovation, collaboration, education and advocacy.