[Harrisburg, PA] – As the dust settles in Harrisburg after a contentious 101-day budget fight, one of the state’s largest citizen-based environmental advocacy groups assessed the damage done to Pennsylvania’s conservation programs and the Commonwealth’s environment.
“While steps were taken to make this horrible proposal a bit better, this budget deal does a disservice to Pennsylvania’s environment,” stated PennEnvironment Director David Masur. “That being said, the outcome would have been much worse–downright disastrous–if it wasn’t for the leadership and commitment of the House Democrats to protect the Commonwealth’s environment.”
Environmental advocates in Harrisburg and across the state voiced their disappointment with the Rendell administration and the Senate Republican majority for collaborating to make the environment the target of massive programmatic rollbacks and cuts, and selling off Pennsylvania’s public lands to the highest bidders.
“Over the past six years, Gov. Rendell has attempted to portray himself as an environmental champion in Harrisburg and his administration deserves credit for several historic environmental initiatives,” noted Masur. “But his administration’s environmental legacy may be defined by this budget and the governor’s aggressive efforts to push one proposal after the next that threatens our environment and promotes the agenda of special interests and polluters.”
Masur pointed specifically to Governor Rendell’s longstanding proposal to raid the Oil and Gas Lease Fund, which directs lease monies from oil and natural gas drilling on state forestland towards conservation programs in the state. Gov. Rendell was the originator of the idea to drain the Oil and Gas Lease Fund, the first time the program has had its money diverted in its nearly sixty-year history. As if adding insult to injury, environmental groups cried foul when Rendell approved a budget deal that would permanently eviscerate the Oil and Gas Lease Fund by directing all future monies away from conservation programs after this year’s raid.
PennEnvironment also pointed out the governor’s lack of leadership in implementing a natural gas severance tax. As the budget deal wraps up, Pennsylvania remains the only major drilling state in the nation that does not have a severance tax for the removal of natural gas. Rendell sided with the natural gas industry, whose lobbyists have argued that the industry is not mature enough in Pennsylvania to get taxed yet. Environmentalists were skeptical since Pennsylvania allowed 4,000 new oil and gas wells in 2008—more than every state in the nation except Texas.
“The natural gas industry has gotten a free ride from the Governor and Senate Republicans,” stated Masur. “This industry has a track record of pollution in Pennsylvania, including contaminating drinking water in at least seven Pennsylvania counties with toxic methane, requiring a drinking water advisory for nearly 350,000 Pittsburgh-area residents, and most recently being investigated for potentially contributing to the death of 10,000 fish on a 33-mile stretch of Dunkard Creek which feeds the Monongahela River. This is just the tip of the toxic iceberg. It’s ridiculous that they are given a carte blanche to pollute by Harrisburg.”
Instead of promoting the commonsense severance tax, Governor Rendell teamed up with Senate Republicans to promote a plan to raise money by opening up expansive tracts of Pennsylvania’s state forests—many of the most pristine and wild places in the Commonwealth—to damaging natural gas drilling. Environmentalists argued that this plan would have taken control away from the foresters and ecologists at the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR), and turned Pennsylvania’s state forests into a cash cow for the state budget.
“If we needed to fill a $100 million budget hole, we wouldn’t tell the PA Liquor Control Board, ‘Go sell more whisky and booze’ and we wouldn’t tell the tobacco industry, ‘we need more money in state coffers so work harder to sell more cigarettes,’” stated Masur. “So we shouldn’t be telling state biologists and foresters to fill a budget hole by peddling as much state forestlands as possible for damaging gas drilling.”
“The anti-environmental plan being pushed by Gov. Rendell’s office and the Senate Republicans would have done irreparable damage to Pennsylvania’s environment,” said Masur. “What sort of environmental legacy they expect to leave for future generations of Pennsylvanians when they promote bad ideas like this is beyond me.”
Environmental groups across the state applauded House Democrats for standing up against the ecological damage being proposed and forcing their party’s leadership back to the table to negotiate a better budget deal for Pennsylvania’s environment.
“PennEnvironment applauds Reps. David Levdansky (D-Allegheny), Greg Vitali (D-Delaware), Bob Freeman (D-Northampton), Steve Santarsiero (D-Bucks), Tim Briggs (D-Montgomery), David Kessler (D-Berks), Ed Staback (D-Lackawanna), Bud George (D-Clearfield), Barb McIlvaine-Smith (D-Chester), Rick Taylor (D-Montgomery), Tom Houghton (D-Chester), John Siptroth (D-Monroe), and the dozens of House Democrats who wouldn’t be spoon fed this anti-environmental budget that catered to polluters and powerful special interests,” stated Masur.
“PennEnvironment also applauds Republican Representatives Kate Harper and Chris Ross for their leadership on this critical issue, and reaching across the aisle to try and resolve these threats to our environmental programs,” said Masur.
Still, environmental groups admitted that while the final proposal isn’t a good one for Pennsylvania’s environment, the outcome was looking much worse just weeks ago.
“While the final outcome is far from a glowing example of promoting environmental protection,” said Masur, “We acknowledge that the budget proposal agreed upon by three of the four caucuses and Governor Rendell just weeks ago would have been far worse—probably the worst budget agreement for Pennsylvania’s environment in a decade, if not ever.”
As the budget debacle finally wrapped up, environmental advocates pointed to specific challenges overcome by the Friday September 18th budget agreement including:
The September 18th budget agreement included raising $60 million in the next nine months by opening up state forestlands to drilling and $180 million in fiscal year 2010-2011 from drilling on state lands, setting an unprecedented dictate to Pennsylvania’s conservation agency to require financial benchmarks from drilling on state lands. House Democrats were able to remove the second-year $180 million funding requirement, and keep jurisdiction within DCNR to control drilling.
The September 18th budget deal included raiding all monies from the Oil and Gas Lease Fund and then redirecting all revenue in future years away from this program and towards the General Fund. House Democrats were able to ensure that in future years, the $50 million raised in the Oil and Gas Lease Fund is directed to its original purpose—environmental protection.
“We were given a truckload of lemons and found a way to squeeze out a glass of lemonade,” said Masur, referring to the concessions House Democrats were able to force back into the final budget after most Harrisburg pundits believed that they were fighting a lost cause.