(*Updated: This story was corrected at 11:02 a.m. to correct the difference between natural gas production and fracking.)
In June, Gov. Tom Wolf trumpeted near-majority support in the General Assembly for his Restore Pennsylvania plan, a $4.5 billion, four-year infrastructure investment spree funded by 20 years’ worth of natural gas tax-backed bonds.
“We have a real opportunity to make impactful infrastructure investments in Pennsylvania.” Wolf said in a statement at the time. “Restore Pennsylvania is the only plan presented that can actually address the needs in every community.”
Wolf’s proposal also raised serious concerns among some environmentalists, who have gone as far to begin lobbying efforts.
Members of the groups, both state and national, are pushing lawmakers to oppose the Democratic governor’s plan to rebuild Pennsylvania’s roads, expand broadband internet access, and create green infrastructure. They’ve had a few successes thus far.
When the formal legislative language was rolled out on June 5, Restore PA had 99 co-sponsors in the House and 25 in the Senate. Bills need, respectively, 102 votes and 26 votes to pass each chamber.
Since then, the House and Senate versions of the plan have lost two co-sponsors each — three Democrats and one Republican in total. At least three of those lawmakers met with environmental advocates before or after making their decision to withdraw from the bill.
In the House, Rep. Brian Sims, D-Philadelphia, and Rep. Tarah Toohil, R-Luzerne, have disappeared from the co-sponsor list published online despite backing the plan when it was officially released.
Neither Sims nor Toohil responded to a request for comment on why they pulled their support.
The Philadelphia chapter of the Sunrise Movement, a national group of high school students who advocate for climate action, said eight members visited Sims in mid-August.
“While unsure beforehand, the conversation helped him realize that to protect our futures we need to stop climate change and create millions of new jobs in the process, and not stoop to the level of legislation like #RestorePA that would lock PA into a dangerous fracking future,” the group tweeted.
While unsure beforehand, the conversation helped him realize that to protect our futures we need to stop climate change and create millions of new jobs in the process, and not stoop to the level of legislation like #RestorePA that would lock PA into a dangerous fracking future
— Sunrise Philly (@sunrisephilly) August 16, 2019
In the Senate, Democratic Sens. Katie Muth, of Chester County, and Sen. Daylin Leach, of Montgomery County, also no longer back Wolf’s plan.
In an email, Leach’s Chief of Staff Judy Trombetta confirmed that the senator changed his position after meeting with concerned constituents.
“[Leach] feels that Restore PA invests too much in fracking infrastructure,” Trombetta said. “He is opposed to fracking in Pennsylvania and will not be supporting this bill.”
Muth, meanwhile, told the Capital-Star she feared the program would make limited investments in alternative energy. She met with members of Food and Water Watch, a corporate accountability group, after she made her decision to withdraw support.
Wolf’s plan calls for the $4.5 billion to be spread across 11 areas of investment, from blight remediation to road repair and emergency response.
The “Energy Efficiency” area of investment calls for some dollars to “provide grants or loans for the utilization, development and construction of alternative and clean energy projects.”
Funding decisions would be made by a new 7-member board, made up of legislators and gubernatorial appointees; six members would need to agree to assign funding.
Muth said she disagrees with using appointees to funnel money to projects. She is also skeptical that Republicans will go along with renewable investments.
She does, however, support a severance tax on natural gas production.
Currently, Pennsylvania does not tax natural gas production, but rather each well drilled. This is known as the impact fee.
Restore PA calls for 20 years of severance tax revenue to repay the bonds, which “in no way [makes] the gas industry operators pay a fair share,” Muth said.
Wolf’s proposal calls for a tax between 9 cents to nearly 16 cents per-thousand cubic feet of gas extracted. The rate will depend on the average annual price of natural gas from the previous calendar year. That revenue would pay off the initial bond issue.
Republican opponents have estimated that paying back the initial debt could cost $6.5 billion. The administration has previously declined to speculate on the end cost of paying back the initial bonds, but once floated a much lower number.
Not everyone agrees with Muth that a severance tax is the right idea. Some of the state’s biggest climate hawks, such as Karen Feridun of Berks Gas Truth, a grassroots anti-fracking group, have expressed opposition to any tax on natural gas production.
“I think it’s a phony argument to say we need to put on another tax and institutionalize fracking in the process,” Feridun told the Capital-Star. “No one will get rid of fracking if it’s funding pet programs.”
As is, Wolf is budgeting for 20 years of severance tax revenue — necessitating 20 years of natural gas production.* Such a timeline, Feridun said, doesn’t help prevent the worst impacts of climate change according to scientists’ predictions.
Instead, she said Wolf should be barnstorming for a more transformative plan, one that will wean Pennsylvania off fossil fuels entirely.
Just as nationally “the Green New Deal is starting a conversation,” Feridun said that Pennsylvania “could be having the same conversation.”
She acknowledged that such a policy wouldn’t have a great chance of passing the Republican-controlled General Assembly. But even with near-majority support, Restore PA’s odds look long.
Republican leadership, especially in the House, remains deeply skeptical of a plan it sees as built on debt. As for a severance tax, outside of one 2017 Senate vote tied to deep regulatory cuts, GOP lawmakers have refused to approve one for Wolf’s entire first term.
With all things equal, Feridun said now is the time to make a play for a grand new vision.
“It’s a transition plan we need: how we deal with workers, how we deal with a just transition” from fossil fuels, Feridun said.
She estimated that members of the Better Path Coalition — a loosely knit amalgamation of dozens of state environmental groups — have made at least 20 visits to lawmakers urging them to reject Restore PA.
Some elected officials, Feridun said, told advocates they’d be “no” votes but wouldn’t take their name off the bill.
While he did not say which way he’d vote, long-time environmental ally Rep. Greg Vitali, D-Delaware, told the Capital-Star that he was under intense pressure from his own leadership and the governor to add his name to the plan.
“It seemed to mean an enormous amount to the administration, but it meant pretty little to me,” Vitali said of co-sponsoring the bill.
Restore PA’s backers point to the need for a funding injection to the proposed projects, such as remediating lead in schools or expanding rural internet access.
They also point out that, regardless of concerns, fracking will continue in Pennsylvania with or without a tax, so the state should take its fair share.
“As long as Pennsylvania remains a major natural gas producing state it is irresponsible for us not to collect a portion of revenue and reinvest it for the benefit of Pennsylvanians,” a memo prepared by the administration reads. “We missed this opportunity with timber and coal earlier in the state’s history, and we cannot afford to miss it again with this resource.”
In a statement, Wolf’s spokesperson J.J. Abbott pointed to recent Franklin & Marshall College polling showing widespread support for Restore PA.
Nearly 70 percent of registered voters polled said they strongly or somewhat favor Wolf’s Restore PA proposal.
The poll made no reference to the growth in debt, and, much to Feridun’s consternation, no reference to climate change.
“Our communities need infrastructure investment and opponents of Governor Wolf’s infrastructure plan have not put forth a reasonable or comparable alternative,” Abbott said in an email. “We continue to believe the plan would pass if it were brought to a vote.”