DePasquale: Climate change costing Pa. millions in infrastructure damage, but there’s a fix

Pa. Auditor General Eugene DePasquale speaks during a news conference at the state Capitol on Wednesday, Nov. 13, 2019 (Capital-Star photo by John L. Micek)

Climate change cost Pennsylvania taxpayers at least $261 million in 2018, with half of that amount, $125.7 million, inflicted on the state’s infrastructure due to “record-breaking” flooding and landslides, state Auditor General Eugene DePasquale said Wednesday.

DePasquale’s office rolled out a new report that contains nine recommendations for the state to get ahead of the issue that he said poses a long-term threat to public safety and health, even as it exerts an increasing strain on state and municipal budgets, with taxpayers asked to bear those costs.

The report’s recommendations include reducing the state’s greenhouse gas emissions by embracing clean-burning alternative energy; funding increases for those state agencies, such as the Departments of Environmental Protection, Conservation and Natural Resources, and Transportation, that have front-facing roles in planning for severe weather events; and offering incentives to encourage people to buy electric vehicles.

“The longer we fail to act, the greater the risks to our environment, our economy and our future,” DePasquale, a York County Democrat, said during a Capitol news conference. “Climate change is a challenge that also presents an opportunity. By acting and investing now, we can not only save lives, but also protect our economy and create jobs along the way.”

DePasquale, who’s also a Democratic candidate for central Pennsylvania’s 10th Congressional District, said the Republican-controlled General Assembly can directly address the threat of climate change by passing Gov. Tom Wolf’s $4.5 million, bond-funded infrastructure plan, Restore PA.

That initiative, which has faced opposition from both the GOP and progressives because of its reliance on a severance tax on natural gas drilling, would pay for road and bridge improvements, as well as flood mitigation, among other programs.

DePasquale pointed to the Susquehanna River, just blocks from the capital, as an example of where flood control infrastructure could be improved. The Susquehanna, which empties into the Chesapeake Bay, has been included on the DEP’s list of “impaired” waterways because of long-standing pollution issues.

In August, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, who chairs the interstate Chesapeake Executive Council, called on Pennsylvania to up its game in protecting the downstream bay.

On Wednesday, DePasquale expressed sympathy for those concerns, as he again stressed the need for improving infrastructure on the Susquehanna River.

Though his office’s report calls on DEP to take “comprehensive and timely steps to measure and regulate” methane emissions by the oil and gas industry, DePasquale backed Wolf’s call for increased petrochemical plant development in western Pennsylvania.

Wolf’s remarks, made during a Tuesday interview with KDKA-AM in Pittsburgh, put him at odds with Steel City Mayor Bill Peduto, who opposes more development, and further enraged environmentalists who view Wolf as not tough enough on Big Gas.

During that interview, Wolf reiterated an argument he’s been using since at least June, saying that the cracker will produce plastic that can be turned into lightweight materials that can produce energy efficient vehicles.

In an email, Wolf’s spokesperson, J.J. Abbott, told the Capital-Star’s Stephen Caruso that “the Governor was pointing to the fact that lightweight plastics have been helpful in improving fuel economy in vehicles and reducing the energy intensity of other products because they help reduce weight when replacing other heavier materials.”

“This reduction of weight helps improve gas mileage and can reduce the energy required for shipping,” he added.

On Wednesday, DePasquale said he’d “fall with the governor,” on that argument.

“Over the long haul, we want to move to clean energy,” DePasquale said. “Natural gas would be a better transition than coal.”

An award-winning political journalist with more than 25 years' experience in the news business, John L. Micek is The Pennsylvania Capital-Star's Editor-in-Chief. Before joining The Capital-Star, Micek spent six years as Opinion Editor at PennLive/The Patriot-News in Harrisburg, Pa., where he helped shape and lead a multiple-award-winning Opinion section for one of Pennsylvania's most-visited news websites. Prior to that, he spent 13 years covering Pennsylvania government and politics for The Morning Call of Allentown, Pa. His career has also included stints covering Congress, Chicago City Hall and more municipal meetings than he could ever count, Micek contributes regular analysis and commentary to a host of broadcast outlets, including CTV-News in Canada and talkRadio in London, U.K., as well as "Face the State" on CBS-21 in Harrisburg, Pa.; "Pennsylvania Newsmakers" on WGAL-8 in Lancaster, Pa., and the Pennsylvania Cable Network. His weekly column on American politics is syndicated nationwide to more than 800 newspapers by Cagle Syndicate.