Wolf budget would improve environmental protection

HARRISBURG, March 5 – State Rep. Greg Vitali commended Gov. Tom Wolf on proposing a budget for the 2015-16 fiscal year that would increase environmental protection and invest in renewable energy and conservation.


“Considering the difficult fiscal challenges the Commonwealth faces, Pennsylvania’s environment fares very well in this budget,” said Vitali, the Democratic chairman of the House Environmental Resources and Energy Committee.


The proposed budget increases state funding to the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection by 5.6 percent to $147 million. The Department received about $200 million in state funding in fiscal year 2007-08 and has been cut most years since then.


The budget also would provide an additional 50 oil and gas inspectors to DEP, with funding coming from a severance tax proposed by the governor, according to Vitali.


Wolf’s budget increases funding for the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources by 10 percent, from $137 million to $151 million. Unfortunately, Vitali said, $117 million of this amount would come from the Oil and Gas Lease Fund, which receives its revenues from gas drilling on public land. The other $34 million would come from the General Fund.


“Funding so much of DCNR with Oil and Gas Lease Fund money is a big problem because this money should be used for conservation purposes only,” Vitali said.


Wind, solar and energy efficiency funding would be part of an overall $225 million energy investment initiative to encourage "a comprehensive energy portfolio that supports gas, coal, oil and renewables and encourages conservation and clean technology alternatives." Funding for this initiative would be provided by a $675 million bond program, supported by revenue from the Marcellus Shale severance tax on drilling.


Vitali said $50 million of this bond money would go toward refunding to the PA Sunshine Solar program, distributing rebates on qualifying solar projects to homeowners and small businesses and expanding the program to include nonprofit institutions.


“This $50 million is enough to fund the program for about another two years,” Vitali said.


Vitali recently introduced legislation, H.B. 200, to provide a permanent funding source for the Sunshine Solar Program.


Wolf’s $675 million bond proposal also would provide $20 million to encourage construction of new wind farms and support interconnection to the power grid. It also would provide $50 million in competitive grants to fund projects to improve energy efficiency at small businesses, local government, schools, and nonprofits.


Complete details of Wolf’s bond proposal have yet to be revealed.


Vitali also noted that the governor’s proposed budget almost doubles the appropriation for the Delaware River Basin Commission, increasing it from $434,000 to $750,000.


"This is good news, but it's still less than what the commission received last fiscal year," Vitali said, noting the commission had received $934,000 before then-Gov. Tom Corbett cut it in retaliation for it not enacting rules that would allow gas drilling in the Delaware river basin.


The proposal also would provide $100,000 in funding to the Department of Health to create a registry to monitor health issues of people living near natural gas drilling sites.


"There is some question as to whether this is enough money for a registry,” Vitali said. “The original Act 13 legislation would have contained $2 million for this purpose."


House public hearings on Wolf’s budget proposal begin in Harrisburg next week. DEP officials will go before the House Appropriations Committee at 1 p.m. March 11 and DCNR will appear at 1:30 p.m. March 16.