Prove your humanity

Energize PA is a plan put forward by Pennsylvania House Republicans to support the natural gas industry in the state. It includes seven bills, four of which have already advanced, including some that deal with redeveloping old industrial sites.

Stephen Caruso, the House reporter for the Pennsylvania Capital-Star, has been covering Energize PA and joins The Allegheny Front’s Kara Holsopple.

LISTEN to their conversation:

Kara Holsopple: What’s included in those proposals, the ones that have already been voted on? 

Stephen Caruso: A lot of them are kind of money related. They have a subsidy, which would be the same size as the one that went to the Beaver Valley cracker plant. That [subsidy] would be for a plant in the northeastern part of the state. Instead of using ethane, [it would] use methane for production purposes that would be turned into fertilizer.

There are also some smaller programs. One would have the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) take stock of all of the old industrial locations and put them out there for businesses to use. There’s a smaller grant program that would give money to build small pipelines to bring natural gas to businesses that might need it for heating or for any other industrial purposes.

KH: The listing of brownfield sites so that they can be used for industrial development, how does that support the gas industry?

SC: The idea of putting it together for the natural gas industry, it’s a way to get some institutional support. I think that’s something that even environmental groups I talk to say, ‘We’re okay with this because this doesn’t necessarily have to be for natural gas. Anyone could go to that list and pull it up and say, we want to put a business here.’ It could be a solar panel producer; it could be another cracker. So I think there was a lot of this that just seemed to people to be a generally good idea.

KH: So what’s the rationale for Energize PA? What are Republicans and the Democrats who support it hoping it will accomplish?

SC: All of it goes to this study that was commissioned by a bunch of state business interests – the Pa. Chamber of Commerce, Marcellus Shale Coalition (an industry group for specifically unconventional gas drilling), a few local Chamber of Commerce’s, the Manufacturers Association.

“It’s kind of the prototypical idea that smart government policy can lead to stronger economic growth…if we streamline the process for businesses and just get out of their way.”

The report done by Kinsey – while it doesn’t give very specific policy options – says if we do the right options, Pennsylvania can have a massive boost in its economy from natural gas.

Specifically, what Energize PA supporters hope to do is take gas, instead of just selling it for heat or shipping it abroad, or using it for plastics production, and create a whole industry that takes natural gas and manufactures things. So the hope is thousands of jobs, billions of dollars in extra state GDP, hundreds of millions of dollars of extra taxes.

It’s kind of the prototypical idea that smart government policy can lead to stronger economic growth if we change our permitting, if we provide tax credits and if we streamline the process for businesses and just get out of their way.

KH: Why is this happening now? 

SC: There’s definitely a lot of chatter that Mike Turzai [Speaker of the House from Allegheny County] wants to run for governor. Energize PA is a package that brings a lot of people together. I think that Republicans want to show that they’re the pro-growth party.

They want to appease trade unions with this. The Republicans have done a really strong job of trying to bring in some union members to say, ‘This would give us a chance. If the tax credit, for example, for the new methane plant comes in, we’re going to have a thousand jobs minimum.’

They are working with the natural gas industry, which is a huge influence in Harrisburg.

Who doesn’t want to be able to go back to their district and say, ‘You see that big construction site over there? That’s because of policy I pushed.’

“Republicans want to show that they’re the pro-growth party.”

The other thing you could add is Wolf put out his Restore PA program, which was based on a [natural gas] severance tax to fund infrastructure. When Energize PA was originally pitched, I think people in the newsroom even jokingly said, ‘Oh, is this the response to Restore PA.’ The Republicans have shied away from saying that outright. But these two plans focus on how we change Pennsylvania going forward by working with the natural gas industry. What are your choices here? Do you want to Restore PA or Energize PA?

Poll: Broad Support for Wolf’s Plan to Tax Gas Drillers to Pay for Infrastructure

KH: So there are other parts of the plan that are more controversial, including a proposal to create a new permitting commission. What’s being proposed here and how would that work?

SC: The details are pretty sparse in the bill. The basics are that it’s a five-person commission made up of gubernatorial appointees. They would be approved by the Senate. And then this commission would approve all permits.

But the whole process after that is not laid out in the bill. The bill just says that the natural gas industry is so concerned about permitting, and a lot of industry is, when it comes to DEP that we need to just uproot the system and completely change it.

This could be the commission votes on every single permit. This could be they hire professionals to do it, kind of like what DEP has now. A lot of those details are left unresolved, which is [concerning] a lot of environmentalists. The bill specifically says that DEP staff will not be transferred to this new commission. All funding for permitting will go over there.

David Hass, a former DEP secretary under a Republican governor in the early 2000s, pointed out that you were guaranteeing two years of delays because you either hire trained personnel like the ones we have at DEP or you are going to need to train a whole bunch of staff to handle the permitting. And that means while they’re training, who’s going to be running permits?

KH: More than 50 environmental groups signed a letter opposing the plan, calling it “an effort to double down on nearly a decade of preferential policy support for natural gas industry.” And just to be clear, this commission would take over the permitting process from DEP and leave just enforcement to DEP. 

SC: You know, Republicans will often point to very long waits for permits. You can sometimes see delays that go a couple of weeks, maybe even a month, maybe a little bit more than that. So this is their attempt to try to address that.

KH: We’re talking about tens of thousands of permits a year. The DEP’s funding has been trimmed over the years. So why not just give the DEP more money and resources to do the job? 

SC: You will find a lot of people who agree with that, Republicans and Democrats.

There is a very large contingent of southeastern  Republicans who are just like, ‘The problem is very simple. We want DEP to get more things done. Let’s give them more money.’

DEP used to have a budget, I believe, in the early 2000s that touched into maybe $300 million. They are now down to about, I think, a $130 – 150 million budget. It’s been going down the same time as the natural gas industry is becoming bigger and bigger in the state.

One study from a state legislative research group just came out that Republicans were using a lot in their arguments for [the permitting changes]. The study found that looking at specifically two permitting programs at DEP, funding going up did not mean more permits coming out. So they’ve used this to say more funding isn’t the solution.

The opposition has been strong from environmental groups. And that bill has not gotten out of the House, unlike those other bills you mentioned, because the GOP just can’t round up the votes.

You have Republicans whose districts have pipelines going right through them. And [pipelines] spark a lot of constituent concerns. And so these are lawmakers who tend to listen to the environmental groups takes a bit more.

KH: The Pennsylvania House is on a break. It reconvenes on October 21st. Have Republicans been working on the bills during the break, trying to try to get some votes? 

SC: I haven’t checked in with lawmakers to know specifically, but that is what I definitely assume. When you have these breaks, leadership can start calling up members and ask them how they’re voting. It gives you time to try and make your quid pro quos, always a part of the legislative process.

It’s worth noting that right before the legislature left in September, a bill that a lot of the southeastern Republicans have wanted that would put a lot more money into fighting PFAS reduction – and that also then leads to economic development funding – passed after lingering around. Southeastern Republicans really wanted that one so they could go home to their districts and say, ‘Look, I’m trying to get us money to fight PFAS remediation’ at old air bases in Bucks County and Montgomery County.

So I’m kind of looking at that and thinking, ‘Well, if the Republican leadership let that move, then does that mean that there could be something like, Energize PA? What might we get in return votes on these bills that we want to have passed?