Restore or reenergize? Turzai, House GOP offer plan for natural gas-based state economy

Speaker of the House Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny, announced a natural gas based economic development plan for Pennsylvania Monday, April 29, 2019. (Capital-Star photo by Stephen Caruso)

Preaching “jobs, jobs, jobs,” state House Speaker Mike Turzai and other House Republicans rolled out a package of bills Monday that they say will expand the manufacturing potential of the shale gas boom.

The House GOP’s Energize PA plan includes changing the state’s regulatory regime and creating a tax credit for natural gas related-manufacturing, similar to one offered to the Shell cracker plant in Beaver County, among other proposals.

“Why isn’t it happening in Luzerne County? Why isn’t it happening up in Mercer County? Why don’t we have it in Fayette County?” Turzai, R-Allegheny, asked. 

Turzai, whose suburban Pittsburgh district is some 20 miles away from the unfinished Shell petrochemical plant, said the House GOP proposal would help other rusted-out regions of the state capitalize on old industrial sites and plentiful natural gas to create new economic opportunities.

Construction on the Beaver County plant has provided thousands of jobs for tradesmen. When it’s fully operational, the plant, which turns fracked ethane gas into plastic, is expected to provide hundreds of jobs — even if some locals still raise environmental concerns.

Much of the GOP plan is based on a McKinsey study funded by state business interests, such as Chevron, which claimed that a natural gas-fueled state economy could mean a $60 billion increase in Pennsylvania’s GDP, 100,000 new jobs, and billions in tax dollars for state government’s coffers.

The plan doesn’t include any tax increases. But it does expand tax credits and existing grant programs for “last mile” natural gas pipes bringing it into homes and businesses.

One proposal also would take permitting authority away from the Department of Environmental Protection and hand it to a new commission.

That provision, from Rep. Tim O’Neal, R-Washington, calls for a new, five-member board appointed by the governor to 10-year terms.

O’Neal said his proposal would create “a stable, predictable process” for businesses in the state that often see months of wait time for permits.

The DEP has often cited tight budgets and limited staff for the delay. Funding for the agency has remained flat since budget cuts during the Great Recession.

O’Neal contended that by divesting the DEP of permitting, the agency could focus in on enforcement of existing rules. The new permitting agency would ideally be funded by permit fees, but might also require transferring money from other agencies.

The plan isn’t the only one hinging around the state natural gas industry.

Gov. Tom Wolf’s Restore PA calls for $4.5 billion in infrastructure spending over the next four years — the funds borrowed off the future revenue of a tax on natural gas extraction.

The plan calls for investments in everything from roads and bridges to rural broadband, blight reduction, and stormwater management — as well as funds to help expand the natural gas industry.

The plan has drawn tentative Republican interest, mostly from moderate southeastern members.

Turzai said Energize PA “wasn’t designed” to counter Wolf’s own proposal, “but still is in stark contrast.”

Wolf’s spokesperson, J.J. Abbott, said the administration has yet to review the legislation.

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