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The recent state budget includes nearly 11% more funding over last year’s budget for the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP). The money will go primarily toward clearing permitting backlogs and for administrative work. No new money, however, will go to the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, which is the agency that would assess a company’s compliance in safely drilling injection wells for carbon capture.

Certainly, there have been inflationary pressures that have had a profound impact on environmental spending, but there have been more problematic issues as well. Below is a table that shows the number of positions in key state environmental programs that have diminished over the years:

While the number of key positions in the state’s environmental offices have declined, the amount of work assigned to these agencies has skyrocketed. In the early 2000’s, Pennsylvania’s natural gas production stood at around 150 billion cubic feet. Today, that number is about 7 ½ trillion cubic feet. In January, the DEP released a report detailing how the state’s oil and gas operators abandoned more than 3,000 wells - the most of any reporting period - without properly plugging them, thereby releasing methane, a greenhouse gas, into the atmosphere.

That same month, the DEP released a report declaring that one-third of the rivers and streams in the state are environmentally impaired, which complements an EPA warning last year that one in three drinking water systems in the state contains dangerous levels of PFA’s, which can cause a number of health problems, including cancer. In April, the EPA issued a fact sheet informing us that Pennsylvania ranks fourth in the nation in the number of underground lead pipes within its infrastructure. And in order to make a dent into its various backlogs, the DEP last year logged 19,000 hours of overtime. Yet, in June of 2020, a grand jury found that the DEP failed to protect the public from the health effects of fracking.

There are, however, some ways that this knowledge can work to the state’s advantage. While Tom Wolf was governor, he issued an executive order for Pennsylvania to join the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI). By setting limits to greenhouse production and auctioning allowances to surpass those limits, the state could have brought in as much as an additional $1.25 billion. The money would have gone directly into the Clean Air Fund, to finance clean energy, energy efficiency, and greenhouse gas abatement programs. The main roadblock, however, has been the state’s senate, the main body in an ongoing legal fight to making Pennsylvania’s membership in RGGI a reality. Both the Commonwealth Court and the state’s Supreme Court are concurrently hearing the case. No decision has yet been made.

There appears to be no avenue to address the senate’s intransigence on the issue. The major agenda item on the state senate’s calendar in recent months has been a proposed name change of the “Department of Environmental Protection to the “Department of Environmental Resources” - the senate’s version of “putting lipstick on a pig”.

This is a matter to keep in mind when next year’s election rolls around. And this is why those state legislative positions should be important to environmentalists across the commonwealth.

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