- State News
- Gas Industry
Those swingin' southeast Republicans
November 10, 2011
Next week the House will debate the governor's Marcellus package that has been introduced by House leadership as HB 1950. At 127 pages, the bill links together a county-collected, optional impact fee changes to gas drilling regulations and redistribution of income from the Oil and Gas Lease Fund.
Including these three distinct policy issues in one bill was a strategic decision made by the governor and House Republican leadership that was meant to force members to accept a low drilling tax rate of 1 percent in exchange for strengthened environmental protections and funding for environmental programs. The strategy is aimed squarely at Republicans in the southeastern counties around Philadelphia whose constituents care about environmental issues and who overwhelmingly support a tax on gas drillers. These Republicans are swing votes on environmental issues because they will vote against the wishes of their leadership when they know leadership's position is out of step with the wishes of the voters in their districts.
These swing voters will be faced with a choice between bucking leadership or representing the wishes of their voters when HB 1950 comes up for debate on the House floor next week. They play a key role in determining whether or not the bill passes the House because all of the Democrats are likely to vote against the bill. Even though the Republicans hold enough seats to pass the bill without Democratic support, the fate of the bill may be in doubt if Republican leadership loses the support of the southeastern Republicans.
HB 1950 is an awful bill - a gas industry wish list. In addition to the embarrassingly low effective tax rate, other landmines are buried in the bill. One would completely eliminate the current rights of municipalities to manage impacts of drilling through zoning. Another would privatize the review process for gas drilling permit applications from DEP by allowing gas drillers to pay private contractors for "expedited" permit reviews. Drillers could shop for reviewers and contractors would have every incentive to produce fast, favorable reviews. The bill also sets a bonding requirement so low that it guarantees taxpayers will end up footing the bill to plug abandoned wells and reclaim drilling sites if drillers walk away from their well-closure responsibilities.
The spoonful of sugar the House leadership is offering to its green members in the southeast is new funding for Growing Greener from the Oil and Gas Lease Fund. The fund will be flush with cash over the next decade as royalties from drilling on state forestland flow into it; the bill designates 25 percent of the Oil and Gas Lease Fund for Growing Greener.
House Republican leaders are presenting a stark choice to their members: accept the governor's entire Marcellus package – low impact fee, destruction of local zoning powers, privatization of permit reviews and a low bonding rate – or lose funding for the Growing Greener program that is so popular (and important) in your districts.
But that is not the only choice the members will have. The bill is scheduled for second consideration on Monday when members can offer amendments from the floor. There are more than 100 amendments filed to the bill. Funding for Growing Greener is in many of them, so members will have the opportunity to take care of the popular conservation and restoration program while not having to swallow the unacceptable provisions of HB 1950.
House leadership may also try any number of parliamentary tricks to shut down debate and force members to vote on HB 1950 as it is written and prevent members from having real policy choices. Setting the rules for the drilling industry and getting stronger, overdue and much-needed drilling regulations are crucial pieces of public policy. We send our legislators to Harrisburg to debate important public policies like this; it would be a perversion of the democratic process to deny members the opportunity to inject better ideas into this important bill.
All members of the House of Representatives will have the opportunity to turn a bill that is a giveaway to the gas drilling industry into one that provides sound protection for the environment and communities in the drilling area, reinvests in Growing Greener and ensures taxpayers won't foot the bill to clean up after the drillers. The ability to produce a decent bill, however, turns on what Republicans from the southeast decide to do -- follow the leader, or serve the people.