Once a leader on clean energy and green jobs, Pa.'s progress has been slowed to a halt

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf

Capitol Offense

by Matt Bevilacqua

Leanne Krueger-Braneky knew that Harrisburg would be tough, but she didn’t know just how tough. When the newly elected state representative was sworn in last August, the budget was already two months late. It wouldn’t pass until the following March.“I’ve had colleagues from both sides of the aisle pull me aside and tell me that this is truly the worst they’ve ever seen it,” says Krueger-Braneky,  a Democrat who represents Delaware County’s 161st District in the state House. “So I came in during a particularly intensive period in modern history in the Legislature.”

Soon, she’d learn that the same kind of governmental morass extends to other issues, including a major part of her platform: the environment. For eight years, Krueger-Braneky served as executive director of the Sustainable Business Network of Greater Philadelphia, which supports environmentally friendly businesses and business practices in the region. She hoped that by heading to the Republican-controlled General Assembly as a green-leaning Democrat, she could use her office to promote a message of sustainability statewide.

Then she came up against a web of opposition so deep-seated and far-reaching that it exceeded even her expectations.

“I’m very surprised to see people arguing against things such as clean air and clean water,” Krueger-Braneky says. “Those are things that I sort of took for granted as basic human rights, and yet they both really seem to be under attack in Pennsylvania right now.”

In a state where the oil and coal industries have dominated for generations—and where the natural gas industry has grown into a powerhouse over the last decade—pushing for any kind ofenvironmental policy has long been a challenge. But several factors coalesced in recent years to make the politics of climate change in Pennsylvania a politics fraught with deadlock, dead ends and disorganization.

As in other states, the rise of right-wing caucuses after President Obama’s election swept hardline conservatives into the Pennsylvania Legislature, and pushed moderates out. That coincided with the discovery of harvestable natural gas in the Marcellus Shale, which lies beneath much of western and northern Pennsylvania, prompting a boom in hydraulic fracturing (or “fracking”) in those areas. And Democrats, already weakened in Harrisburg due to gerrymandering, have been unable to muster a pro-environmental coalition powerful enough to counter several years’ worth of deregulation and tax breaks for oil and gas companies. Even Gov. Tom Wolf, a moderate, business-friendly liberal, can’t seem to push through any policies at all, let alone those addressing climate change.

“We’re in a position today where, even though we have a Democratic governor, we have overwhelming majorities in the Legislature that don’t want to do anything on climate and clean energy policy,” says Matt Stepp, policy director at the environmental advocacy group PennFuture.

This is all very frustrating for Pennsylvanians trying to push an environmental agenda. That frustration manifested in May with a mini-scandal in the capital. John Quigley, former secretary of the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), resigned from his post following an irate email he fired off to environmental advocacy groups the previous month. In the wake of legislators voting on April 12 to reject oil and gas regulations that had been four years in the making, Quigley scolded the advocates for failing to show up or put pressure on their lawmakers.

“I’ve slept on this but can no longer hold back,” Quigley wrote. “Where the [expletive] were you people yesterday? The House and Senate hold Russian show trials on vital environmental issues and there’s no pushback at all from the environmental community?”

Insiders told reporters that Quigley had long alienated both state legislators and potential allies in the governor’s office, and that the email was “the straw that broke the camel’s back.” But for Quigley, who served as secretary of the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources under former Gov. Ed Rendell, the mounting disappointments of the last few years must seem especially bleak given that, in the first decade of the 2000s, Pennsylvania actually did make a lot of progress toward protecting the environment.

The good old days
Looking back today, it’s hard to believe that Harrisburg managed to pass hefty climate change regulations and clean energy policies during a window that lasted roughly between 2002 and 2010. Before then, the coal industry exerted much of the same kind of influence on the Legislature as the fracking industry does today. As Stepp puts it, “Whatever’s the fossil fuel industry de jure oftentimes dictates environmental policy.”

But as the coal industry declined in the early aughts and Rendell occupied the governor’s seat, the state passed things like the Alternative Energy Portfolio Standards Act, which requires electric companies to generate or distribute a certain percentage of energy from wind, solar or other alternative sources, and the Alternative Energy Investment Act, which established a fund for supporting renewable energy. In the same period, it adopted policies that protected state forests from fracking and mandated electronic waste-recycling programs. The DEP’s Growing Greener grants helped to fund projects around the state, and the Pennsylvania Energy Development Authority invested in big projects, including for Philadelphia, where a grant helped build an innovative geothermal well system at Friends Center in Center City.

This era of progress ended with the Tea Party Caucus, a far-right response to Obama’s election that cut short the legislative careers of many Democrats and moderate Republicans across the country while pulling sitting Republican lawmakers rightward. The election of former Gov. Tom Corbett gave newly galvanized conservatives in Pennsylvania an ally in the executive office.

“A lot of the climate and energy work stopped. A lot of the conversations ended there,” Stepp says. “The pool of moderate members willing to negotiate and build consensus on this issue has become very, very small.”

What emerged was a tendency in Harrisburg to view all regulation as inherently anti-business, especially given the economic promise of the Marcellus Shale, which spans from West Virginia through Pennsylvania and into New York state. Last year, the U.S. Energy Information Administration named it the most lucrative gas field in the country, having produced more than 2.8 billion cubic feet of gas in 2013. While New York banned fracking last year, Pennsylvania and West Virginia have taken advantage of the site. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, oil and gas jobs in Pennsylvania rose by nearly 260 percent between 2007 and 2012, from nearly 8,000 jobs in 2007 to nearly 21,000 in 2012. For comparison, that’s about the number of people employed in West Philadelphia by the University of Pennsylvania.

What these numbers don’t reflect, however, is the industry’s volatility. The steep drop in global oil prices over the last two years has led to a slowdown in natural gas drilling, which hit record lows this past winter. For some fracking towns, the promise of the boom days has given way to bankruptcies and layoffs. Recent reports have found that foreclosures, for instance, are up in Beaver, Washington and Westmoreland counties in western Pennsylvania.

Still, fracking’s rise, taking place mostly in towns and counties that struggled following decades of deindustrialization, encourages conservative lawmakers to oppose any sort of regulations that could be interpreted as hampering the industry. It also puts pressure on left-leaning lawmakers to keep quiet about them.

“There is just not the type of policy support for environmental issues coming from the Democratic Party in Pennsylvania as I would have hoped,” says Brian Sims, a Philadelphia Democrat who was elected to the state House in 2012. “Not only is there a very powerful, very wealthy far-right opposition to environmentalism, there is [also] very passive, very marginal support on the left for environmental legislation.”

Money from oil and gas interest groups certainly plays a major role. Officially, the industry has given more than $11 million to the campaigns of elected Pennsylvania officials since the late 1990s, according to the National Institute on Money in State Politics. Records show that campaign contributions from the industry have risen steadily over subsequent election years, going from about $480,000 in 2000 to $1.3 million in 2006 to more than $2.7 million in 2014.

And that only accounts for direct contributions from the industry. With PACs funneling many more dollars into Pennsylvania campaign coffers, lawmakers are beholden to anti-regulation conservative groups without on-paper ties to oil and gas. For instance, the free-market PA Future Fund ranks consistently as one of the biggest spenders in the state, accounting for almost $7.8 million in campaign contributions over the last 15 years, of which $7.1 million went to Republicans. Its name frequently shows up on lists of top donors to House Speaker Mike Turzai, House Majority Leader David Reed and Senate President Pro Tempore Joseph Scarnati.

Along with this established, deep-pocketed support comes the kind of political strategy that’s well-organized but obscure and largely free from scrutiny.

“A lot of the narrative has largely been focused on ways of delaying action,” Stepp says, meaning that lawmakers frame their opposition to environmental initiatives using opaque procedural tactics: shifting regulatory oversight from the governor to the Legislature, for instance, or delaying a policy by extending its review period in the General Assembly. This serves to complicate the process, denying the public the kind of broad, easy-to-follow narrative that tends to accompany social issues like gay marriage or abortion.

“The public largely doesn’t care about process issues,” Stepp says. “They’re very arcane, they’re hard to talk about.”

Krueger-Braneky, who sits on the House Environmental Resources and Energy Committee, sees the results of this strategy firsthand.

“In a legislative climate where so many good bills go to committee to die,” she says, “really the only things that are moving quickly seem to be handouts to oil and gas companies or to special interest groups.”

Ducking the federal push for clean energy
One case that illustrates how state lawmakers can thwart environmental policy is the ongoing saga around the Clean Power Plan. President Obama introduced the plan last August, giving states a 15-year timeline to reduce carbon emissions from power plants by at least 32 percent. First proposed by the EPA in 2014, the initiative would require states to file compliance plans with the agency and keep it abreast of their progress.

Last October, however, 26 states sued the EPA, charging that it had overstepped its authority in carrying out the plan. A number of industry groups have added their names to the complaint. In February, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a stay on the Clean Power Plan, pending judicial review. The D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals will hear the case in June, and whoever loses is expected to appeal the decision to the Supreme Court.

Pennsylvania is not among the coalition of states challenging the policy. In fact, the Clean Power Plan has an ally in Gov. Wolf, who directed his administration to move forward with the mandate despite the stay. This doesn’t mean the state will file an official compliance plan with the EPA anytime soon—that will have to wait until the higher court hands down its decision. But it does mean that Harrisburg is thinking of ways to reach its 2030 targets regardless of what happens at the federal level.

“We will continue to work with states that want to work with us on a voluntary basis,” an EPA spokesperson writes in an email. “Many states have asked us to also move forward with our outreach and to continue providing support and developing tools.”

Still, lawmakers in Pennsylvania have mobilized to block implementation of the Clean Power Plan (or, really, any policy that resembles it). In doing so, they have reverted to the same behind-the-scenes, procedural tactics that characterize so much of their opposition to environmental issues.

In October 2014, while still governor, Corbett signed a law mandating that before the DEP can send its draft of a compliance plan to the EPA, it must first receive approval from both chambers of the General Assembly. Known as Act 175, this law gives opponents in the Legislature a say in the details of the DEP’s plan, along with a chance to delay its submission until the agency concedes to their demands. 

That is, if they act fast enough. Under the current version of Act 175, if the General Assembly fails to vote on the plan by the EPA’s deadline, then the draft will be automatically approved and sent on to Washington. (Bear in mind that the initial deadline, June 15, 2016, is now moot because of the stay.) The DEP would have to submit its draft to the General Assembly at least 100 days before that date, but some legislators don’t believe that gives them enough time.

Among them is state Sen. Don White, a Republican representing the 41st District, just to the northeast of Pittsburgh. In February, he introduced a bill that would extend the General Assembly’s window for approval to 180 days.

“Basically, what his bill does is update Act 175 to be more reflective of the schedule that is now not as certain as it was prior to the Supreme Court ruling,” says Joe Pittman, White’s chief of staff. “Because that time frame has changed, those dates no longer comport with any future implementation there would be.”

While Democratic Sen. Greg Vitali—whom Sims calls the “one very well-known environmentalist in the capital”—tried to shorten the review period outlined in White’s bill, his amendment failed and the original legislation passed both houses of the General Assembly. The bill now heads to Wolf’s desk.

White’s office has framed his bill as a simple matter of logistics, but the senator has gone public with his concerns about the Clean Power Plan itself. His district is home to three of the four largest coal-fired power plants in the state. Much of the job growth associated with fracking has happened in Allegheny and Indiana counties, the latter of which falls within White’s district.

“It’s a significant economic engine for our communities,” Pittman says. “We’re very concerned that if our power plants are unable to comply, not only are those jobs in jeopardy, but also the jobs associated with the production of coal and the maintenance and upkeep of the power plants.”

During last year’s nine-month budget stalemate in Harrisburg, members of the Legislature tried to add a provision to one of their budget proposals that would have done what White now seeks to achieve—give the General Assembly 180 days to approve or disapprove of the DEP’s compliance plan. Wolf vetoed that version of the budget.

The ascendancy of natural gas
July will bring tens of thousands of visitors to Philadelphia for the Democratic National Convention, and while you wouldn’t have known it from listening to the Republican primary debates, climate change is playing a major role in the latest contest for president. Bernie Sanders has made it a central issue of his campaign, calling for a federal carbon tax and a nationwide ban on fracking, among other environmental initiatives. Though much less zealous than her opponent, presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton at least acknowledges climate change as a problem worthy of government intervention and has vowed to stay the course set by President Obama. Namely, that means reducing greenhouse gas emissions and implementing the Clean Power Plan.

What if the Supreme Court upholds the ban, and the Clean Power Plan fizzles out anyway? Trends in the power industry indicate that Pennsylvania might be able to stay on target, at least on paper.

“Even if there wasn’t the Clean Power Plan, when you look out over the next couple of decades, we know for sure that we will continue to see cheap and abundant natural gas,” Quigley told Grid a few weeks before his departure from the DEP. “That is already impacting Pennsylvania’s power situation.”

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, total carbon emissions in Pennsylvania fell from a high of 280 million metric tons in 2005 to 244 million in 2013. Much of that was due to the scaling back of the coal industry, which saw its own emissions drop from 141 million metric tons in 2005 to 106 million in 2013—the lowest since the administration started keeping records in 1980. At least 200 coal plants shut down nationwide between 2009 and 2015, many of them in Pennsylvania. Should this trend continue, more coal operations across the state will likely close their doors in the coming years.

While coal has diminished, natural gas has flourished. And to Quigley, its ascendance suggests that Pennsylvania will be able to reach its emissions goals even without much government help. “What is happening right now—competitive market forces and the price of natural gas—[it] gets us into compliance for probably at least the first five years of the plan,” he said.

Beyond emissions, however, tapping the Marcellus Shale raises questions of its own. Perhaps even more so than air quality, fracking has become the hot-button energy debate in Pennsylvania, with some hailing it as a job creator and a saving grace of the power industry, and others voicing concerns about water contamination and methane pollution.

Nominally, the Wolf administration supports fracking and has not moved to prohibit the practice, except for issuing an executive order banning it from state parks and forests. (His predecessor, Corbett, had lifted the ban, which Rendell first imposed in 2010.) Wolf did attempt to place a 6.5 percent tax on extracting gas from the Marcellus Shale, but the General Assembly didn’t approve it. Opponents framed it as a revenue issue, arguing that it wouldn’t meet expectations for plugging gaps in the state budget. Pennsylvania remains the only state without an extraction tax on natural gas, although it does charge a per-well “impact fee.”

Then there are the governor’s efforts to regulate methane emissions, a byproduct of fracking. In January, he tasked the DEP with goals for reducing methane leaks at oil and gas wells. Predictably, this drew criticism from the industry. Opposing lawmakers again turned to procedure: To avoid talking about the substance of the regulations, they could cast the policy wholesale as an example of government overreach.

Too small an army
Most notably at the state level, the Wolf administration tried to expand Chapter 78 of the Pennsylvania Code, which governs oil and gas wells. As defined by the DEP, “unconventional” wells require drilling into impermeable rock (such as shale) and often rely on fracking to extract the gas. Under the proposed additions to Chapter 78, unconventional sites would be disallowed from storing their waste in ground pits. They would also have to vandal-proof their tanks and report their monthly waste to state authorities.

Advocates had been pushing for updates to the state’s oil and gas regulations since 2012, when the Corbett administration signed a previous version into law. By a 3-2 vote, the Independent Regulatory Review Commission approved the new rules in April. They then headed to the General Assembly, where committees in both the House and Senate voted to block them. Among the things that opposing lawmakers called into question: typos in the text of the bill and questions about the legality of the DEP’s procedure.

After the hearings were over, Quigley sent the email that ended his career at the DEP.

What does it mean for Pennsylvania that some of the most stringent environmental regulations in years could die in committee with very little public outcry and result in only some tabloid-ready headlines about an expletive laden email? As the Legislature prepares to debate yet another state budget this summer, mere months after resolving the previous year’s stalemate, it’s unlikely that too many lawmakers on either side of the aisle will stick their necks out for the latest fracking regulations or climate change bill.

“There’s not enough of us, and I think that’s part of the problem,” Krueger-Braneky says. “There are very few legislators willing to take a public, outspoken stance.”