New Prospects for Investing in PA’s Environment & Outdoors

Featured image credit: Office of Governor Tom Wolf

With the Governor’s budget address and a significant unspent balance of federal funding, there have been a flurry of proposals to invest in conservation, restoration, and energy projects throughout Pennsylvania.

Growing Greener
Laurel Hill State Park
John Walliser, Senior VP, Legal & Government Affairs
John Walliser, Senior VP, Legal & Government Affairs

Earlier this month, Governor Wolf announced a proposal to use $1.7 billion in American Rescue Plan Act funds to invest in Pennsylvania’s future. One of the most significant portions of the funding would go towards conserving and restoring Pennsylvania’s environment through Growing Greener.

The Growing Greener Program was established 20 years ago to address a variety of environmental, recreation, agriculture, and community projects. It began in 1999, when Governor Ridge led the passage of legislation to create the Environmental Stewardship Fund. Together with the Keystone Park, Recreation and Conservation Fund, the Environmental Stewardship Fund is responsible for some of the largest investments in Pennsylvania’s environment. If Governor Wolf’s plan is approved, this would be the first new revenue for Growing Greener in a decade.

As proposed, $450 million would be dedicated to Growing Greener as well as agriculture conservation programs, such as the Agricultural Conservation Assistance Program and the Agriculture Conservation Excellence Grant Program.

“The Governor’s proposal builds on the bipartisan efforts now in the General Assembly to establish a Growing Greener III to make the critical investments needed to clean up our rivers and streams, expand recreational opportunities and support farm conservation that are long overdue,” said David Hess, former Secretary of the Department of Environmental Protection.

The Governor’s proposal matches with several different bipartisan initiatives in the General Assembly that would also make extraordinary investments in conservation and recreation. Senate Bill 525 and its counterpart, House Bill 2020, would invest $500 million of America Rescue Plan Act funds into a Growing Greener III initiative. The Senate bill, which enjoys sponsorship by a bipartisan majority of senators, has received second consideration by the chamber and could see consideration before budget discussions begin in late Spring.

Abandoned mine land reforestation

Accompanying these bills is the creation of a Clean Streams Fund and Agriculture Conservation Assistance Program as provided in Senate Bill 832 (which has also received second consideration) and House Bill 1901. While more narrowly focused on water quality improvements, this legislation would also make significant investments in much-needed conservation and remediation efforts to address legacy pollution.

Decisions as to which proposal to advance, and ultimately how much money to invest, will be debated over the next several months. The state’s annual budget is finalized each June, and if Growing Greener is to see any renewal it will likely be part of much broader budget negotiations and legislation. There is widespread public support for these types of initiatives, and even greater need across the Commonwealth — whether deteriorating infrastructure in State Parks, or waterways being impaired by legacy pollution.

Abandoned Mine Land Restoration

In addition to the $450 million for Growing Greener, this month Governor Wolf announced that Pennsylvania was awarded $244.9 million from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law for abandoned mine land restoration.

“We’ve long needed a solution to accelerate work to address the environmental and public health concerns of our legacy energy development, I’m pleased that the Biden Administration shares my commitment to reclaiming Pennsylvania’s abandoned mine land for productive use,” the Governor said in a press release. “This bipartisan investment will address the dangers of abandoned mines while simultaneously supporting new, good-paying jobs, economic recovery, and community revitalization.”

Acid mine drainage

According to DEP, Pennsylvania is responsible for one-third of abandoned mines in the entire country, and over $1 billion of health and safety problems documented by the federal Office of Surface Mining’s AML Inventory System. The abandoned mines themselves pose health and safety risks, and acid mine drainage is a threat to many of Pennsylvania’s waterways. Pennsylvania is expected to receive a total of nearly $4 billion over the next 15 years to address abandoned mines.

PEC has long advocated for greater funding, which is derived both from the Abandoned Mine Land Trust Fund as well as additional appropriations. Since 1977, monies have been collected in the AML Trust Fund but not fully utilized. There has been a strong partnership between community, environmental, and industry to see this funding allocated. The extraordinary investment through IIJA will move our state a long way toward addressing abandoned mine land and acid mine treatment issues.

Oil and Gas Well Plugging

Pennsylvania is now eligible for its first round of Infrastructure Bill funding for plugging orphaned oil and gas wells. The Department of the Interior announced at the end of January that Pennsylvania would be able to apply for $1.4 million of the $1.15 billion available to states in the first funding phase.

According to new research from the Environmental Defense Fund, Pennsylvania has 8,840 documented orphan wells, and the DEP estimates that up to 560,000 wells are unaccounted for. Orphan wells can leak large amounts of methane and contaminate drinking water sources. In the past, DEP has only had the funds to plug a handful of wells a year. The Infrastructure Bill funding could go a long way in addressing Pennsylvania’s orphan well problem. An added benefit to this funding is that it can help spur work opportunities for workers in the areas where these wells are found.

Electric Vehicles
EV charging station

Pennsylvania will also receive $171.5 million from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law over the next five years to build electric vehicle charging stations.  According to the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, the transportation sector is responsible for nearly 25% of all greenhouse gas emissions in Pennsylvania, with gas-fueled vehicles creating most of those emissions. Vehicles also produce 47% of nitrous oxide statewide, which contributes to ground level ozone formation and related negative health effects.

Expanding use of electric vehicles, and therefore electric vehicle infrastructure, is critical to reducing Pennsylvania’s contribution to climate change and protecting public health. Demand for electric vehicles is already increasing. According to DEP, electric vehicle sales have more than doubled since 2017, as prices are dropping and driving ranges are improving. In addition to helping reduce emissions, building out the network will create jobs across the state.

This investment can help leverage other policy proposals to build out EV and public transit infrastructure, create greater consumer choice options with electric vehicles, and ensure equitable availability of clean transportation.

On the Horizon: Carbon Management

Just this week, the White House released new draft guidance and directives on decarbonization. This includes pending carbon capture deployment policy and a request for information for clean hydrogen development, managed through the federal Council on Environmental Quality and the Department of Energy, respectively. In addition, the federal government is ramping up green procurement standards to support climate-friendly manufacturing. These measures will be critical for reducing emissions from sectors of the economy that are more challenging to decarbonize, like industry. Those emissions, which make up a significant part of Pennsylvania’s overall climate footprint, are still growing. For our state to achieve a net-zero profile before 2050, providing support through incentives, and establishing strong guardrails in the near term, is essential.