On Transition in Harrisburg

Davitt Woodwell
President, Pennsylvania Environmental Council

Last Tuesday brought to an end the 2014 election cycle. In Pennsylvania, the biggest winner is Governor-Elect Tom Wolf. With his win, Wolf now enters the vague time of “transition,” that period of a dozen weeks or so to shift from the single focus of a campaign to the broad management of governing.

In making that shift, the Governor-Elect will also have to balance his desire for change with the realities of executive agencies and programs already in place, and a legislature now more deeply controlled by another party.

From an environmental and conservation perspective, there are a good number of issues that Governor-Elect Wolf will have to address, and for several of which he has already signaled some of his intentions. First and foremost will be appointing Secretaries to manage DEP and DCNR. Both agencies have critical mandates in ensuring the health, safety, and welfare of the Commonwealth, and both face critical challenges.

While changing priorities is often the right of a new administration, both the DEP and DCNR have ongoing responsibilities that, while they may be tweaked, still must be carried out.

DCNR manages over 120 state parks and more than 2.5 million acres on behalf of Pennsylvanians. Keeping those parks and forests operating, and managing the multiple uses of the forests in a sustainable way in face of a variety of extractive uses, is foremost in the Department’s charge. It is incumbent upon the new administration to ensure the highest standards and practices for industries operating in, on, and under our common lands. It is also critical to reinstate the ban on any further leasing of state forest or park lands – 700,000 acres are well more than enough.

The DEP is charged with protecting human and environmental health through regulating, essentially, how much we can degrade the environment. They do this by setting rules, issuing permits allowing a certain level of impact, and then enforcing those permits. Unfortunately, the department does not have adequate resources to effectively complete these roles.  By its own admission, DEP is understaffed in the areas of shale gas and water management, and has continued to receive budgets that are not enough to cover its needs. This has to change and offers a great opportunity for the Wolf administration to signal its support of Pennsylvania’s health by presenting the General Assembly with a budget that adequately funds and staffs DEP.

Governor Wolf will also be faced with fulfilling a number of commitments both made by and imposed upon the Commonwealth. Achieving pollution limits in the Susquehanna watershed to limit impacts on the Chesapeake Bay, and developing a plan to limit carbon emissions statewide, are but two of the federal programs in play. Finally getting long-overdue regulations out for the Oil and Gas Act, dealing with unwise legislation defining unconventional gas development, and continuing to address abandoned mine drainage and brownfield issues will also take the attention of the Governor and Department.

Finally, there are also the new initiatives at which the Governor-Elect has hinted, or that he should be encouraged to undertake. In his election night speech, Wolf talked of all forms of fossil fuels playing a role in the Commonwealth’s future. Indeed, Pennsylvania’s energy economy was a staple of his campaign. How this is operationalized in the new administration will be critical to Pennsylvania’s environmental future.

As a major global emitter of greenhouse gases, it is incumbent upon Pennsylvania to use its considerable innovative capacity to reduce those emissions and indeed profit from doing so.  A first step will be to limit methane emissions from natural gas development. Another, as he has said he will do, will be to join the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative and other states already ahead of us in addressing greenhouse gases. Governor Wolf will also need to recommit Pennsylvania to advancing renewable energy in our state.

The new administration must also take heed of the impacts of the 25,000 to 50,000 miles of new pipeline that are coming to a right-of-way near you.  While planning and siting of the interstate pipelines are governed by federal law, there is little to no control of where and how the intrastate lines are sited or installed.  This has to change and soon.

In sum, Governor-Elect Wolf has many great opportunities to confirm his commitment to Pennsylvania’s long-held environmental and conservation values. It begins with picking leaders of DEP and DCNR who recognize and embody those values and can work to achieve results with a variety of stakeholders to protect and enhance our common wealth. It then carries on to developing policies and strategies that fulfill the promise of Article I, Section 27 of the Pennsylvania Constitution:

 “The people have a right to clean air, pure water, and to the preservation of the natural, scenic, historic and esthetic values of the environment. Pennsylvania’s public natural resources are the common property of all the people, including generations yet to come. As trustee of these resources, the Commonwealth shall conserve and maintain them for the benefit of all the people.”

As with every administration, the Pennsylvania Environmental Council looks forward to working with the Governor-Elect, his transition team, and DEP and DCNR as they move ahead.