Rural Pennsylvania’s chances to ever have a strong economy again are severely at risk. Gov. Tom Wolf filled the leadership posts of two agencies — the departments of Environmental Protection and Conservation and Natural Resources — with alumni from the radical environmental group PennFuture. Further, the very structure of how DEP hands down penalties and creates regulations is hurting our economy and needs to be reformed.
This did not happen overnight. It started more than a decade ago when former Gov. Ed Rendell’s picks to run these agencies — John Hanger (who founded PennFuture), Katie McGinty and John Quigley, all of whom returned under Wolf — abandoned the core mission of government to pursue an activist environmental agenda. Instead of making sure Pennsylvanians had a clear understanding of environmental rules, DEP and DCNR became a distribution center for pork barrel projects for renewable energy (some of which went to PennFuture).
Now, under the Wolf administration, the cornerstone industries of rural Pennsylvania — coal, oil, gas, timber and agriculture — are seeing a tidal wave of regulations from these same agencies and economic opportunities are vanishing. To cite one example, DEP’s oil and gas advisory board recommended the agency not move forward with an extremely costly and unnecessary package of regulations, but DEP did anyway. The Environmental Quality Board, which has a few token seats for the legislature and private sector but is essentially a stacked deck for the administration, adopted the regulations in February.
As a result, the oil patch of northwest Pennsylvania is on life support. Wells are ceasing production and companies that once employed thousands of rural Pennsylvanians are down to skeleton crews. What activity is left is under constant threat of punitive fines levied for minor infractions or paperwork violations. DEP has such discretion in how it calculates civil fines that its enforcement staff threatens exhorbitant penalties, with the main recourse for a small business pleading for a lower fine. In short, when it comes to DEP, businesses and job creators are presumed guilty until found innocent and that’s un-American.
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On a recent conference call with potential investors, DEP Secretary Quigley was extremely dismissive of the job creation that results from oil and gas development. Why would Quigley try to dissuade investment into an industry that has been in Pennsylvania for more than 150 years? He has repeatedly touted the purported economic opportunities available to wind and solar — even though these energy sources take huge tracts of farm and forest land out of production in perpetuity.
In rural Pennsylvania, where jobs and opportunities are becoming increasingly scarce due to the regulatory climate, heroin and drug abuse are rampant as people lose their jobs — and their hope. There is no reason, given the tremendous natural resources this state has, that any family in Pennsylvania should be struggling. But environmental groups, most of them from suburban Philadelphia, want to leave rural Pennsylvania behind. Now that these groups’ former leaders are in charge of government agencies, that sort of destructive, hateful thinking is shaping Wolf’s tax and regulatory policy. We can’t afford it, and, we shouldn’t put up with it anymore.
John Peterson, a Republican, represented Pennsylvania’s 5th Congressional District from 1997 to 2009. He lives in Pleasantville.