Advocates say constitutional change targets pollution regs, greenhouse gas reduction plan

‘They’re trying to weaken anything on the books with the prime target being, of course, the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, but it is applicable to many, many things right now,’ one advocate said 

By: - August 23, 2022 7:13 am

House Environmental Resources & Energy Committee Meeting on Tuesday, June 9. (Capital-Star Screen Capture).

Environmental activists and advocates say that part of a proposed constitutional amendment package could roll back environmental protection regulations, pollution reduction efforts, and initiatives aimed at combating climate change in Pennsylvania.

Language allowing lawmakers to disapprove regulations without the threat of a gubernatorial veto is part of a sprawling constitutional amendment package — known as Senate Bill 106 — that also makes changes to election law and, most controversially, alters the state’s foundational document to declare that there is no constitutional right to publicly funded abortions. The package cleared the Legislature on first consideration in July, as lawmakers debated and approved the 2022-23 state budget.

Environmental advocacy groups say that while news reports largely have focused on the anti-abortion language in the bill, the provision giving the Legislature the ability to disapprove regulations is equally troubling.

The Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative

Ezra Thrush, director of government affairs for PennFuture, an environmental advocacy organization, said the bill, which needs to be approved in two consecutive legislative sessions before it reaches voters, targets the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a multi-state program to reduce greenhouse carbon emissions that the commonwealth officially joined in April. 

Republicans who control the General Assembly pushed back on Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf’s efforts to join the carbon-limiting initiative throughout the regulatory process but ultimately fell short of the two-thirds majority needed to override Wolf’s veto and block the agreement from moving forward. 

“They’re trying to weaken anything on the books with the prime target being, of course, the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, but it is applicable to many, many things right now,” Thrush said. 

Among the other regulations and proposals that Thrush said could be targeted if voters approve the change, are efforts to strengthen water quality standards, as well as draft regulations aimed at addressing volatile organic compounds and methane emissions. 

Molly Parzen, executive director of Conservation Voters of Pennsylvania, said the amendment language also could affect regulations around air and water quality in the commonwealth, as well as hinder efforts to make progress on Pennsylvania’s Chesapeake Bay pollution reduction goals.  

The amendment “would be another strike against our ability to meet those goals,” Parzen said.

Checks & balances

Beyond the implications to environmental protection efforts and regulations on pollutants, environmental advocates said the proposal could be a “Pandora’s box” due to the “wrench it would throw in the balance of power.”

Specifically, the proposed amendment states that: 

“Every order, resolution or vote, to which the concurrence of both Houses may be necessary, except on the questions of adjournment, disapproval of a regulation or termination or extension of a disaster emergency declaration as declared by an executive order or proclamation, or portion of a disaster emergency declaration as declared by an executive order or proclamation, shall be presented to the Governor and before it shall take effect to be approved by him, or being disapproved, shall be repassed by two-thirds of both Houses according to the rules and limitations prescribed in case of a bill.”

Parzen said the idea behind the amendment language is “really scary,” adding that the consequences of allowing the Legislature to disapprove regulation without input from the governor is “a slippery slope” and part of a larger, national push to dismantle and erode trust in democratic institutions.

“This isn’t the way that our system works,” Parzen told the Capital-Star. “This isn’t just some weird thing that’s happening in PA. I think it’s very indicative of the larger crisis that we are having right now.”

Thrush echoed Parzen’s comments, adding that constitutional amendments have given the Legislature a way to circumvent Wolf’s veto pen and limit executive power.

“They [the Legislature] learned a new trick a couple of years ago when the constitutional amendment process was successful with curtailing some of the gubernatorial powers around the [COVID-19] response, and emergency powers. And so it’s evident, they’re trying to do this for a number of things that they don’t like,” Thrush said. 

Educating voters

To communicate the potential ramifications of the amendment to voters, Parzen and Thrush say they will try to educate voters before the November general election on what’s at stake. 

“We’re gonna be undergoing a number of educational campaigns and working with our partners in the environmental conservation space so that voters understand what’s at stake,” Thrush said. “We’re having those conversations, and we’re educating policymakers and state elected officials on those issues now, and we’re traveling throughout the commonwealth and holding meetings with regular Pennsylvanians, along with grass tops [local leaders] and grassroots members of our organizations and activists and advocates on the ground.”

Parzen said the challenge is making the issue tangible to voters.

“I think we’re going to have to make it very real for people,” Parzen said, adding that she thinks a public health approach — discussing how cancer and asthma rates are tied to pollution — is a natural approach. 

“Deregulation makes us less safe,” she said, adding that the environmental movement has historically struggled to address the overwhelming nature of big issues such as climate change.

The solution, she said, is to simplify conversations around those issues, discussing the everyday impacts that voters experience. 

“Taking really big complicated things and just drill them down to the day-to-day is the only way we get through to people,” Parzen said.

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Cassie Miller
Cassie Miller

A native Pennsylvanian, Cassie Miller worked for various publications across the Midstate before joining the team at the Pennsylvania Capital-Star. In her previous roles, she has covered everything from local sports to the financial services industry.