Harrisburg Watch: Wins in 2016, but fights ahead in the new year

by Grid staff

While 2016 is a year many people are glad to have seen pass, it did contain at least two wins for the environment in Pennsylvania.

Most significant was a Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruling on Act 13, which governs the oil and gas drilling industry in the state. The court struck down several provisions of the act as unconstitutional: the use of eminent domain to support companies that transport, sell or store natural gas; the “gag rule” that prevented medical personnel from acquiring information about fracking liquids that might be harming their patients; and a provision that required natural gas drillers to notify public water suppliers of spills—but not private well owners. Outside of cities with municipal water supplies, private wells are extremely common in Pennsylvania. The ruling also prohibits the Public Utility Commission from penalizing municipalities that enact local ordinances that limit drilling. 

The importance of the ruling should be a reminder to Pennsylvanians who consider themselves anti-fracking activists to pay attention to judicial elections this year. “The judicial races in 2017 will have a significant impact on Pennsylvania’s environment,” says Josh McNeil, executive director of Conservation Voters of Pennsylvania. “Democrats put a firm lock on the Supreme Court in 2015, but will have the chance to add an additional seat.” More competitive, McNeil says, are Superior Court and Commonwealth Court elections. “The Commonwealth Court,” says McNeil, “handles most state-level cases involving environmental protections, public land, water safety and air quality.” Democrats have the ability to pick up two seats on the court. “Though Republican judges often support conservation issues, an 8-1 Republican majority on the court is not the best outcome for the environment.”

Another 2016 victory was a bill that would have prevented the ability of cities such as Philadelphia to ban the use of plastic bags—essentially a ban on bans. It’s the kind of legislative action that state advocates are worried could be applied to even bigger issues. 

PennEnvironment Executive Director David Masur told Grid that the index of bad legislation that could come up this year is too long to list. “My biggest concerns,” he said, “are the state bills that would limit PA environmental regulations to be no stricter than federal regs. That’s bad under President Clinton. It’s catastrophic under President Trump.”  

It’s a sentiment echoed by the Sierra Club’s Joanne Kilgour. “We are worried,” said Kilgour, “that we will again see legislation such as last session’s SB 1327 that would have prevented Pennsylvania from passing certain environmental regulations that add protections for human health and the environment beyond the federal floor set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.” 

Kilgour also says that the Sierra Club is anticipating funding cuts to the Department of Environmental Protection and the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. She is also watching for a weakening of the state’s Alternative Energy Portfolio Standard, which requires that by the year 2020–2021, Pennsylvania have a 10 percent alternative energy mix. The percentage may remain, but natural gas may be redefined as an alternative energy source, putting it on the same stage as wind and solar.