A settlement of criminal charges against a gas driller that admitted contaminating drinking water in a rural Pennsylvania town suggests that Josh Shapiro will adopt a tougher enforcement policy on the energy industry when he becomes governor in January, environmental advocates say.
They welcome a plea deal announced last week by Shapiro, the state’s attorney general, under which Coterra Energy will pay $16.29 million toward construction of a new public water system in the northeastern Pennsylvania township of Dimock. Residents there have been living for more than a decade with a water supply contaminated by methane that migrated from the company’s drilling for natural gas.
The settlement is the latest sign, advocates said, that the Shapiro administration will not tolerate the violation of environmental laws by the oil, coal and natural gas companies that have dominated Pennsylvania’s economy for generations while contaminating the state’s air and water. Nonetheless, the companies remain a potent economic force, and the incoming governor will have to deal with the intricacies of dealing with fossil fuel champions in the industry and in the Pennsylvania Legislature.
In August, Texas-based Sunoco Pipeline pleaded no-contest to 48 criminal charges brought by Shapiro for repeated leaks of drilling fluid into aquifers and waterways during construction of the Mariner East natural gas pipelines over the last five years.
Both that case and the Dimock settlement suggest that energy companies will be held accountable for any environmental violations when the new Democratic administration takes office, the activists said.
“Both cases are a reflection of the fact that the governor-elect isn’t afraid to take on powerful interests, be it Sunoco or the fracking industry,” said David Masur, executive director of the nonprofit PennEnvironment. “I’m sure that in all of these cases, he’s looking at them and saying, ‘Pennsylvanians, be they Democrats, Republicans or independents, residents of rural, suburban or urban areas, want me to hold bad actors accountable.’”
David Hess, who headed the state’s Department of Environmental Protection under the Republican governors Tom Ridge and Mark Schweiker in the early 2000s, said the Dimock settlement upholds a policy of tough enforcement that he expects to see continue under the new administration.
“It continues the policy that the attorney general set to make oil and gas companies accountable for their actions,” said Hess, who now edits an environmental newsletter. “It certainly is a warning to other operators.”
Hess predicted the new governor would be in a better position to work with the legislature than Gov. Tom Wolf, also a Democrat, because of Shapiro’s experience as a state representative from 2005 to 2011 and then as a Montgomery County commissioner until 2017, before his election as attorney general last month.
“Shapiro knows the system, he is used to working with interest groups and stakeholders,” Hess said.
By contrast, Wolf began his first term in 2015 by advertising his status as a political outsider and consequently was less able to get things done in the legislature, he said.
Shapiro will also be helped by a new Democratic majority in the state House, the first in 12 years, after a razor-thin win for Democrat Melissa Cerrato in her midterm election fight for the 151st legislative district in Montgomery County outside Philadelphia. It was one of two House contests that were not immediately decided by the Nov. 8 vote.
Masur of PennEnvironment called the new Democratic majority “a profoundly exciting moment” that will help Democrats block Republican attempts to roll back environmental regulations and protections through changes to the state constitution.
“For years, pro-environment allies in Harrisburg have been hamstrung by leaders who attacked the state’s cornerstone environmental and public health safeguards, stalled commonsense policies that had broad bipartisan support and peddled baseless theories questioning the science around global warming,” he said in a statement. “We hope and expect that the newly constituted Pennsylvania Legislature can pursue solutions to our most pressing environmental challenges, including climate change, the scourge of single-use plastic waste and the health and environmental impacts of fossil fuel extraction.”
But even a Democratic majority in the House won’t significantly improve the chances of the state’s accelerating a switch to clean energy, said Robert Routh, public policy and regulatory counsel for the Clean Air Council, a Philadelphia-based nonprofit. Any such bill, he pointed out, is unlikely to be approved by the Pennsylvania Senate, which is still controlled by Republicans.
“It doesn’t dramatically increase the odds of clean-energy legislation landing on Shapiro’s desk, given the margins in the state senate, But it would provide an opportunity for conversations that have been lacking while the House has seen Daryl Metcalfe chair the Energy and Environmental Resources Committee,” Routh said, referring to a now former Republican state representative from Butler County who Democrats decry as a foe of environmental causes. Metcalfe did not run for reelection and his term ended Nov. 30.
Shapiro is also expected to increase the state’s targets for renewable energy use, act on its plan to enter the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, or RGGI, and require the Department of Environmental Protection to do a better job of enforcing regulations, the advocates said.
During the campaign, Shapiro promised to be “an environmental champion who will protect the water we drink and the air we breathe, and not be afraid to hold polluters accountable.”
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That would mean investing in underserved communities, helping weatherize homes, building up electric vehicle infrastructure and updating the state’s Alternative Energy Portfolio Standard to require that the state obtain 30 percent of its electricity from renewable sources by 2030, up from a target of only 8 percent now.
Shapiro pledged during the campaign to promote solar energy and increase access to renewable-energy projects, curb emissions of climate-warming methane by plugging abandoned oil and gas wells and invest in zero-carbon technology.
Still, Joe Minott of the Clean Air Action Fund, the lobbying arm of the Clean Air Council, said that Shapiro’s environmental achievements could be tempered by the challenge of reducing fossil fuel production or consumption in a state where oil, then coal and now natural gas have been mainstays of the economy since the 19th century. The new governor’s campaign promise of an “all of the above” energy policy — as espoused at a national level by former President Barack Obama — wouldn’t allow Pennsylvania to contribute much to curbing carbon emissions, Minott said.
“’All of the above’ is not going to be an adequate response to climate change,” he said. “That being said, it’s probably as much as any governor in Pennsylvania can get away with. Under most administrations, there has been this tacit if not very public support for Pennsylvania continuing to be a major fossil fuel state.”
Some uncertainty also remains about the prospects for finalizing Pennsylvania’s plan to join RGGI, a program in which 11 Northeastern states sell carbon allowances to their regulated power plants, based on a regional cap for carbon emissions that declines over time. The initiative says it has cut emissions by 50 percent since it began in 2005 and has raised some $4 billion to invest in local clean energy projects.
Gov. Wolf’s plan to join RGGI is on hold as officials iawait court rulings on three lawsuits — by Republican lawmakers, energy and labor groups and three natural gas companies — opposing Pennsylvania’s membership. At least one of the suits is expected to be appealed to the state Supreme Court.
If Pennsylvania’s plan to join RGGI survives the legal challenges, it is expected to be implemented by Shapiro, although he said during his campaign that he wasn’t sure whether the program would help the state achieve a reliable, affordable and clean power source in the long term.
But Masur of PennEnvironment said it was unlikely that Shapiro would pass up the chance to raise millions of dollars through RGGI’s quarterly auctions of carbon allowances.
“I would be shocked if the governor-elect made the decision for Pennsylvania to be the first state to pull out of RGGI,” Masur said. “That’s a big opportunity because it will be hundreds of millions of dollars that the Shapiro administration will be able to invest in clean energy and weatherization.” Analysts also predicted that Shapiro would require the DEP to step up its enforcement of environmental rules after years in which it has been accused of favoring industry and playing down the rights of individuals, like property owners who have sought redress after their water was contaminated by fracking and pipeline construction.
Although the agency has been chronically understaffed, that’s only part of the explanation, Masur said.
“Funding is just one piece of the puzzle,” he said. “There are all of these cases where DEP, it appears, sided with the fracking industry and polluters instead of the environment, public health and community. Those are regulatory decisions that have nothing to do with funding.”