Restore PA requires 20 years of natural gas production. Some progressive legislators aren’t ready to sign on

By: - June 7, 2019 7:02 am

A handful of state House progressives are standing strong against Gov. Tom Wolf’s signature infrastructure plan, seeing in the $4.5 billion investment spree an over-reliance on the state’s natural gas industry at a time when Pennsylvania should be moving away from fossil fuels.

The administration’s proposal, known as Restore PA, “locks us into the extraction of natural gas for decades … and that, to me, is troubling,” first-year Rep. Elizabeth Fiedler, of Philadelphia, told the Capital-Star this week.

Restore PA calls for the state to take out 20-year bonds, backed by the future revenue of a severance tax on natural gas production. Pennsylvania is the second-largest gas producing state in the U.S., according to federal data, and despite a decade of development, still has considerable gas reserves underneath its soil.

That also leaves the state among the top carbon polluters in the country. In 2016, Pennsylvania ranked fourth in nation for carbon emissions with 218 million metric tons released into the atmosphere.

If the commonwealth was ranked among countries, its carbon output would be tied with Vietnam as the 27th largest emitter.

Fiedler said her concerns with Wolf’s plan are made more acute by “the absence of a larger plan to transition into a larger renewable economy” including wind and solar. More broadly, the lawmaker said she is unwilling to “double down on fossil fuels.”

The reticence from Fiedler and other primarily first-year progressive lawmakers comes after months of hard salesmanship from Wolf that saw the governor crisscross the state, touring struggling downtowns and flood ravaged communities to build support for his multi-billion dollar plan.

The administration finally rolled out the fine print of the legislation Wednesday night, revealing at the same time that it had secured the support of bipartisan near majorities in the Republican-controlled House and Senate.

All but 10 of the House’s 93 Democrats are listed as sponsors of the bill. Four of the missing lawmakers hail from rural, western districts close to gas drilling.

Speaking to reporters Thursday, senior administration aides insisted that Wolf has “been consistent that we need to be protective of our environment and certainly he’s been strong on promoting the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions in Pennsylvania.”

“At the same time we have a natural gas industry that the governor believes is an important piece of our economic future in Pennsylvania and wants to see succeed,” Wolf’s Deputy Chief of Staff Sam Robinson said during a mid-morning briefing at the Capitol.

Fiedler told the Capital-Star that the administration’s weeks-long delay in releasing the hard details of its plan also prevented her from committing. Any plan, Fiedler said, should also focus on helping low-income and marginalized communities.

The 4th National Climate Assessment, released by the federal government last November, found that climate change would disproportionately impact America’s poor, while costing the country as a whole hundreds of billions of dollars by the end of the century.

And making sure the plan is equitable isn’t just about protecting marginalized communities from flooding or extreme heat.

Rep. Danielle Friel Otten, D-Chester, who ran a grassroots campaign against pipeline development in her suburban district, said she isn’t sure money would be distributed fairly.

For the most part, Wolf’s plan calls for a competitive grant process. Otten worries that would leave out small boroughs and townships without the time, staff, or resources to compete with a big or wealthy municipalities’ pitches.

She also shares Fiedler’s concern that the plan doesn’t go far enough to restrict fossil fuel use. In fact, by funding “manufacturing facilities and other downstream businesses that will use our natural gas,” Restore PA would encourage further growth of drilling, Otten said.

“It’s moving us in the wrong direction,” she added. “I’d love to see an off ramp. Here’s the opportunity to open that conversation up.”

Leveling ‘the playing field’

A separate statewide plan to cut emissions was released Thursday. Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa, D-Allegheny, announced in a press release he would introduce legislation establishing a cap and trade program in Pennsylvania, allowing carbon-emitting companies to buy and sell government issued permits to release pollution.

The plan empowers a state Department of Environmental Protection board to set up the program, with the aim of reducing carbon emissions from state electricity generation by 90 percent over the next 20 years.

Costa said in a press release that “more work is needed to achieve the emission reductions and to make sure Pennsylvania isn’t left behind in the burgeoning growth of clean energy technologies and jobs.”

His bill received broad support from a state environmental coalition including the Sierra Club, Clean Air Council, PennFuture, and the National Resource Defense Fund. Revenue from the plan would be invested in renewables and energy efficiency programs — especially for low-income individuals.

Brittany Crampsie, a spokesperson for Costa, said the bill was unrelated to Restore PA.

Costa’s plan also differs from a cap and trade proposal that state environmental groups are trying to shepherd through Pennsylvania’s regulatory review process. Otten said she offered to push a House version of the legislation.

“It would generate revenue, reduce carbon, and level the playing field,” she said. “It’s a simple solution.”

According to a United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, from November 2018, the Earth’s temperature is on track to increase by roughly 1.5 degrees Celsius over the coming decades. Such an increase would put hundreds of millions of people at risk of displacement, drought, and hunger.

While Restore PA doesn’t directly fight climate change, the potential to invest in “more renewable energy projects, climate resiliency, land protection, watershed restoration, and other environmental protection” led at least one state environmental group, PennFuture, to applaud it in a release.

Other grassroots environmental groups in the state are rejecting the plan. Better Path Coalition — made up of 30 statewide member organizations— are still opposed, according to coalition co-founder Karen Feridun.

While Wolf has committed Pennsylvania to the Paris Climate Accord goals — the 24th state to commit since President Donald Trump announced he was leaving the international compact in 2017 — Feridun said the move was insufficient.

“It’s not simply a matter of reducing our emissions,” Feridun, who leads Berks Gas Truth, an anti-fracking organization, told the Capital-Star. “You cannot address the climate crisis if you don’t address production.”

She also referenced science that suggests drilling for natural gas production leads to greenhouse gas emissions that have an even worse climate impact than carbon dioxide.

For example, a 2018 study from the University of Colorado found that methane emissions were 60 percent higher than federal estimates every year. The 13 million metric tons of methane had as much of an impact on climate change as CO2 released by the coal industry.

Looking at Wolf’s support over the years for natural gas, Feridun said the governor does not use “the language of someone who is thinking about how to curtail production, which flies in the face of what we are told by the scientific community.”

The plan was also greeted with skepticism from some in the scientific community. Michael Mann, a Penn State professor and internationally recognized climate expert, agreed that a plan that relies on 20 years of future natural gas production shouldn’t be considered as the world faces rising temperatures.

He pointed to a 2015 study from University College London that estimated a third of the world’s oil reserves, half of its natural gas reserves, and four-fifths of its coal reserves must not be used to keep a global temperature increase below 2 degrees Celsius from the pre-industrial average.

With policymakers now aiming to keep an increase to 1.5 degrees to prevent the very worst impacts of climate change, Mann said any plan to expand natural gas extraction isn’t compatible with climate science.

“I know that Governor Wolf wants to do right by the people of this state,” Mann said in an email. “So I hope he will reconsider this misguided plan.”

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Stephen Caruso
Stephen Caruso

Stephen Caruso is a former senior reporter with Pennsylvania Capital-Star. Before working with the Capital-Star he covered Pennsylvania state government for The PLS Reporter.