Problems with Pennsylvania's Fiscal Code Legislation

by Rev. Mitch Hescox

We are thankful to Pennsylvania’s Governor Wolf for vetoing HB 1327, the fiscal code legislation.  As pro-life Christians, we are deeply concerned for the impacts HB 1327 would have on our children’s health. We have urged the General Assembly to allow this toxic version to fade away and pass a clean fiscal code without amendments.

If the General Assembly were to override Governor Wolf’s veto of HB 1327, this would do the following.

  • Take away $12 million from energy efficiency programs contained in the Alternative Energy Investment Act to provide natural gas connection grants.
  • Make it easier to drill near schools, playgrounds, and public water supplies.
  • Allow either chamber of the General Assembly to unilaterally disapprove Pennsylvania’s Clean Power Plan. This is not only unconstitutional, but would slow down Pennsylvania’s transition to a clean energy future for our children.

Pro-life Christians, in Pennsylvania and across our nation, are calling for new clean energy to defend the life and health of our children. This isn’t some future threat but concern over our children and grandchildren’s lives today.  Already 1 in 3 of our kids have asthma, autism, ADHD, or allergies with direct links to fossil fuels and petrochemicals. That’s why over 70,000 pro-life Pennsylvania Christians have voiced their support for reducing carbon pollution, methane leaks, and producing clean renewable energy.

Here are just a few of the harmful impacts from fossil fuel pollution on our PA kids:

  1. Medical studies from Butler County, PA link natural gas drilling to low birth weight and additional studies point toward potential birth defects.
  2. Methane and carbon pollution force climate change increasing spring and fall temperatures. Rising temperatures have increased the geographic spread of Lyme Disease, making it almost an epidemic according to the Center for Disease Control.
  3. Already much of Pennsylvania’s air is foul. Allegheny, Armstrong, Berks, Blair, Bucks, Chester, Cumberland, Dauphin, Delaware, Erie, Indiana, Lancaster, Lebanon, Mercer, Northampton, and York all receive flunking grades in ozone and/or particle emissions according to the American Lung Association’s State of the Air Report.  And our continued polluted air threatens the health, life, and wellbeing of over 277,000 Pennsylvania’s kids who already struggle to breathe thanks to asthma.
  4. Methane is both a chemical precursor to smog and 26 times more potent greenhouse gas forcing continued temperature rise (increasing ozone). Leaking methane from current, old and abandoned natural gas wells and infrastructure, guarantees that Pennsylvania will never reach safe ozone levels without reducing the leaks in all natural gas infrastructure.

Here’s a look at what happens if the Governor’s veto is overridden:

  1. Robbing Energy Efficiency to Subsidize Natural Gas

HR 1327 would transfer $12 million dollars from energy efficiency programs contained in the Alternative Energy Investment Act to provide grants and loans to businesses, schools, hospitals, and municipalities in order for them to build connections to natural gas pipelines.

While natural gas is a cleaner burning fuel than coal, this provision only serves as another subsidy to the natural gas industry.  With clean renewable energy at or nearly at market parity with natural gas, why cling to the past? Additionally, energy efficiency remains by far the most cost competitive approach. As highlighted in the bipartisan Governors’ Accord for a New Energy Future, “expanding energy efficiency and renewable energy in a cost-effective way strengthens our states' economic productivity, reduces air pollution and avoids energy waste." Extensive research bears out this relationship between clean energy, job creation, and a strong economy – and also makes clear that expanding clean energy and energy efficiency is likely to lower Pennsylvanians’ electricity bills.[i]

Clean energy results in good jobs. An Environmental Entrepreneurs and Keystone Energy Efficiency Alliance report states over 57,000 clean energy jobs in Pennsylvania at over 4,200 businesses—and a majority of those work in energy efficiency.[ii]  Compare clean energy employment now and its potential versus the approximately 7,000 coal mining jobs left in Pennsylvania. Future economic vitality must move beyond past and embrace a clean energy future.

As good stewards of all God has given us including caring for His creation, we want the freedom to choose our own energy including the ability to produce our own electricity through rooftop solar without restrictions that favor monopoly utilities or the massive tax breaks provided to the fossil fuel industry.  According to an April 2015 report by Penn Environment, Pennsylvania provided more than $3.2 billion in fossil fuels subsidies during fiscal year 2012-2013.[iii]  While this report includes many standard deductions applicable to most businesses, it’s easy to delineate unique breaks for the fossil fuel industry at amounts of $500 million or more per year.

For conservatives like us, Pennsylvania’s subsidies for energy are an affront to our values.  In a state that isn’t educating our kids and can’t agree on a state budget, taking at least $500 million per year out of our pockets is quite frankly and simply wrong.  Especially, when the Legislature fails to consider a state natural gas excise or extraction fee that leaves at least another $200 million dollars (over the existing impact fees) in the pockets of the natural gas industry. Even Texas collects an extraction tax and uses the funds for public education.

  1. Drilling Near Schools, Playgrounds, and Public Water Supplies

In another handout to the oil and gas industry, HB-1327 vacated over four years of efforts by Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to update environmental protection performance standards at oil and gas well sites.  While HB-1327 only negates the conventional oil and gas operations sections, it will be hard to separate the new 78a for unconventional wells (fracking) as they are contained in the same rule making process.

The new DEP regulations would limit, until review, drilling near schools, playgrounds, public water supplies, old wells, or other areas that have potential public impact.  The new standards would also require any polluted water to be restored to pre-drilling quality, and better spill notification and management.  By trying to gut these new regulations, the Pennsylvania General Assembly again wishes to protect the fossil fuel industry instead of our children.

  1. An Unconstitutional Effort to Kill Pennsylvania’s Clean Power Plan

The final problem refers to the continuing attempts to delay the study, process, and drafting of a Pennsylvania State Implementation Plan for the Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan.  To move Pennsylvania into the clean energy future, DEP should continue the state planning process to implement the Clean Power Plan.

Pennsylvania has been a national leader on implementation, and was accepted into the National Governors Association “Policy Academy” to analyze and model what compliance approaches will work best for the Commonwealth.  PA’s DEP has collected more stakeholder input on Clean Power Plan compliance than any other state, putting us in a strong position to move ahead.

As a result of its planning and engagement with stakeholders, DEP is now uniquely positioned to finish a state plan with a relatively small commitment of time and resources, as opposed to the loss of momentum and focus it would face if Pennsylvania were to stop.  To restart at a later date would be costly and foolish.

Additionally, failing to move forward with a state plan could ultimately make Clean Power Plan compliance more difficult for Pennsylvania. The start-date for generators’ compliance obligations will likely remain 2022.  States that postpone planning until after federal litigation could find themselves with much less time to develop a thoughtful state plan that works for their communities, workers, and generators, with less time for these stakeholders to comply.  DEP will develop a “least-cost compliance approach to benefit consumers of electricity,” as required by law, and the sooner DEP does so, the sooner we can address head-on the ongoing transformation of the state’s power sector, protect Pennsylvania’s consumers and the communities in the state’s coal regions, and ensure reliability for the electric grid.

During PA DEP's public comment period on the state plan last fall, more than 2,000 citizens, generators, businesses, trade groups, legislators, faith groups, and non-profit organizations filed written comments or testified at 14 public listening sessions throughout the commonwealth.

More than 80 percent of commenters said they wanted the state to expand clean energy, more than 90 percent expressed support for the DEP's development of a tailored state plan, and almost 70 percent said they wanted Pennsylvania to submit its implementation plan to EPA on time.

These figures reflect bipartisan polling from Public Opinion Strategies in 2014, which found that 82% of Pennsylvanians endorsed a state-crafted plan to curb carbon pollution, while even higher percentages wanted more investments in energy efficiency and renewable energy.

Clearly Pennsylvanians, including pro-life Christians, want their leaders to develop a plan that transitions away from dirty energy sources and focuses on clean, renewable energy, and energy efficiency. DEP should continue its efforts to plan for a clean energy future in Pennsylvania that protects health and the environment and strengthens our economy. We strongly oppose any legislation that delays DEP efforts to develop a state compliance plan.

Now is not the time to take away money from schools for energy efficiency; nor is it the time to make it easier to drill near schools.  Rather, now is the time to create a healthy future for our children powered by clean energy, and Pennsylvania’s Clean Power Plan will help bring about this future.

Instead of partisan divides, let’s work together for a clean energy future that protects our kids, gives them a healthy future, and allows the market to determine our energy future.

Rev. Mitch Hescox is the President of the Evangelical Environmental Network. He and his family live in New Freedom, PA. 

[i] See also Synapse Energy Economics, Inc., Bill Savings in a Clean Energy Future (July 23, 2015, revised October 26, 2015), available at http://www.synapse-energy.com/sites/default/files/Bill-Savings-in-a-Clean-Energy-Future.pdf and Brown et al., Low-Carbon Pathways for the U.S. and the South: an Assessment of Costs and Options (Georgia Institute of Technology, July, 2015), available at http://spp.gatech.edu/sites/default/files/publication/download/Low-Carbon_Pathway.pdf

[ii] http://cleanenergyworksforus.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/CleanJobsPennsylvania.pdf

[iii] http://www.pafossilfuelhandouts.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/FossilFuelSubsidyReport_PennFuture.pdf

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