[Harrisburg] – As the dust settled on a sprint-like finish to state budget passage, citizen-based environmental group PennEnvironment judged the outcome as a mixed bag for the Commonwealth’s environment.
“The budget surely could have been a lot worse for our environment,” state PennEnvironment Director David Masur. “But it was far from perfect.”
PennEnvironment noted that the state’s environment dodged a bullet when the state legislature fully funded two landmark conservation programs that earlier in the year Governor Corbett had proposed to eliminate.
The Keystone Recreation, Park and Conservation Fund, often referred to simply as the “Keystone Fund,” will be funded in full, after legislators voiced bi-partisan opposition to the Governor’s proposal to dismantle the program.
“For years, the Keystone Fund saved the places that made Pennsylvania great. So it was crucial that we work save the Keystone Fund,” stated Masur.
After the Governor initially cut the program, a massive public backlash led to the legislature reinstating the program. More than 16,000 residents from all corners of Pennsylvania weighed in supporting the Keystone Fund – sending emails, writing letters, sending photos and making phone calls – all to encourage their elected officials to keep the program in place and thriving. PennEnvironment volunteers and staff also spoke with more than 50,000 people about the program, including park visitors at nearly half of Pennsylvania’s state parks.
PennEnvironment also applauded the legislature’s snub of the Governor’s effort to dissolve the Commonwealth’s farmland preservation program. Gov. Corbett’s proposal to dry up the program’s funding was met with opposition in the legislature as well from residents around the state, ultimately forcing the administration to sign a budget bill that keeps dedicated funding for this program intact. The 24-year-old program has protected nearly 4,300 farms and more than 460,000 acres of farmland.
These bright spots were darkened by significant polluter handouts and cuts to the Department of Environmental Protection. The approved budget eliminates nearly $12 million in General Fund dollars to the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) and $2.5 million to the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, continuing years of deep cuts felt by both agencies under Democratic and Republican governors alike.
The budget also gives Royal Dutch Shell a 25-year tax break as enticement for bringing an ethane processing refinery to Beaver County, while telling every-day Pennsylvanians to tighten their belts and accept massive cuts to social services including education, safety nets for the poor, environmental programs and faltering transportation and infrastructure. PennEnvironment noted that Shell saw $31 billion in profits last year—one more reason that it believes this corporate welfare proposal should not have been enacted.
In the waning hours of the budget debate, PennEnvironment also caught wind of language hidden in budget legislation to create a short-term moratorium on gas drilling in the geologic formation known as the “Newark Basin.” This formation sits above Bucks County and has seen increased interest in recent years by the gas drilling industry.
While PennEnvironment applauded steps to tackle the threats from gas drilling, the group voiced deep disappointment in the Republican majority for their unwillingness to allow other Pennsylvanian communities to enjoy the same level of control in their backyards when it comes to gas drilling—say nothing of a full ban or moratorium. At the same time, PennEnvironment could only voice disbelief with the secretive manor in which the language was added to the budget in the 11th hour.
“Gas drilling has quickly become the most visible environmental issue for Pennsylvania in decades,” stated Masur. “To treat the vast majority of the state’s residents as second class citizens by removing their right to control gas drilling in their backyards—while giving other residents the ability to have a complete moratorium on gas drilling—is illogical and violates everything we know about the Golden Rule.”
Outside of the budget bills, the PennEnvironment also criticized the House and Senate legislative supporters of Senate Bill 367 for authorizing gas and oil drilling on college campuses and other state properties.
“This bill sets a dangerous precedent for increased drilling activity where our kids and Pennsylvania’s young adults go to learn,” said Masur. “With the passage of Act 13 and the widespread Marcellus Shale gas leasing found in communities across the Commonwealth, is nowhere off limits from this risky activity?”
In its opposition to the bill, PennEnvironment emphasized the public health and safety threats of drilling and mining activities as well as the passage of Act 13 earlier this year that allows drilling operations to occur in close proximity to waterways, drinking water sources and buildings.
While some legislators argued this legislation was needed to help universities and colleges deal with tight budgets, PennEnvironment argued that this was a red herring. “It feels very disingenuous for the bill’s legislative supporters to argue for its necessity, since this is the same legislature that decided to slash funding to higher education in the first place,” stated Masur. “This is like turning off someone’s heat in the middle of winter and then telling them to burn their furniture to stay warm.”
At the same time, PennEnvironment applauded the public pressure that appeared to have stopped House leaders from bringing House Bill 1659 up for a final vote in the. The bill proposed to severely restrict the DEP’s ability to review environmental permits. The legislation would have limited DEP’s time for permit review, and allowed non-DEP staff to evaluate permits – opening the door to a fox-guarding-the-henhouse scenario.
“We hope in future years to be able to work with state leaders on proactive, visionary environmental policies and programs to make Pennsylvania a leader on the environment, rather than spend time defending the great programs we already have, as we did this year.”