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Pa. can’t afford to wait until 2023 for a pit bull on climate change. But we might have to | Will Bunch

While other states have taken the lead on fighting fossil fuel pollution, Pennsylvania has gone the other direction.

Laid out pipes for the Mariner East natural gas pipeline by the Goshen Corporate Park in Chester County.
Laid out pipes for the Mariner East natural gas pipeline by the Goshen Corporate Park in Chester County.Read moreCHARLES FOX / STAFF

The late great gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson once famously wrote that failed 1972 presidential candidate Ed Muskie "talked like a farmer with terminal cancer trying to borrow money on next year's crop." One can only imagine what the Rolling Stone scribe might have said about Pennsylvania's Gov. Wolf as he talks in his flat monotone about the inferno-like crises facing our state, our nation, and our world. An insurance underwriter who mixed up his heart medication with Quaaludes, maybe?

Wolf — who drives a Jeep but seems cruising to a November reelection with all the excitement of a Dodge minivan — swung by the Inquirer and Daily News last week to meet with my colleagues from the editorial board. One of the things the governor's inquisitors wanted to gauge was his zeal for fighting on climate change — a timely subject, indeed.

A major global scientific panel just predicted a catastrophic world of droughts, floods, and disappearing coastal cities if leaders don't take drastic action in the next 12 years. In Florida, a storm that was on no one's radar became a monster Category 4 hurricane in a couple of days over hot Gulf waters, and wreaked widespread devastation. But when asked about Planet Earth's raging brushfire, Wolf delivered, in so many words, a crop report.

Pennsylvania's 47th governor did predict a fading future for fossil fuels — not so much as the great moral imperative of our times but because, in his words: "According to the economists, it's hard for power-generation companies to get capital in the capital markets for a fixed-site centralized power-generation plant right now." Wolf did say solar power is the future, and he talked about how his recent move on "closing borders" — a  complicated concept most voters aren't familiar with — will help Pennsylvania generate more sun power right here. OK, that's good. So this was his kicker: "We are moving — I think — into a sustainable energy future. The question is, what are we doing in the meantime?"

I'm not sure either I or the state electorate knows the answer. Neither do many of Pennsylvania's environmentalists, who looked toward Wolf with great hope when he was first elected in 2014 with promises of an 180-degree reversal from the reign of Republican Gov. Tom Corbett, who was deeply indebted to Big Oil and Gas. In his first term, the York Democrat kept some of his promises for tighter regs on pollution in the fracking industry but backpedaled, or watered down, or even forgot about others. Full-time environmentalists say they're disappointed. Some citizen activists in the heart of fracking country are livid.

"On climate, he could be working for the Trump administration," Karen Feridun, founder of the grassroots anti-fracking group Berks Gas Truth, told me. Like many Pennsylvania activists, Feridun has looked at governors from different parties on each side of the Keystone State — New York's Andrew Cuomo to the north and Maryland's Larry Hogan to the south — who've banned fracking in their states and wonders why that's not even on the table here. "Wolf must become the climate leader he isn't," she said, "by leading the transition [from fossil fuels], stopping all fracking, developing plans to retrain workers, and preparing the state to adapt to changes we can't avoid."

Action on the state and local level has become America's great hope in making any progress against greenhouse-gas pollution in an era when the president of the United States is willfully stupid about the science — President Trump says climate is changing but "will change back again," a view not shared by any top climatologists — and his government is rolling back environmental regulations faster than Big Pollution's lobbyists can look them up.

It's not surprising perhaps that liberal-leaning California — by itself one of the world's largest economies — has approved a plan to reduce carbon pollution by 40 percent by 2030, the deadline for urgent action recently set by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or IPCC. But here in the Northeast, the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative has already boasted considerable success in limiting greenhouse-gas pollution from power plants, with ambitious plans to do more. Its members are Maryland, Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Rhode Island and Vermont.

Notice who's missing? Wolf is also one of only three Democratic governors to not join the U.S. Climate Alliance, which includes state leaders from both parties opposing Trump on withdrawing from the Paris climate accord. The Pennsylvanian called that fight "a symbolic gesture."

Wolf actually promised in his platform on his 2014 website — as reported earlier this year by StateImpact Pennsylvania — that he would push for the state to join the Northeastern anti-pollution compact. But then we didn't. And when Wolf was asked about that at a January news conference, he claimed: "I don't remember making that promise. In fact, I do remember — I didn't make that promise" — even though he clearly did.

The climate contradiction is the kind of thing that Wolf's election opponent should have a field day with. But his GOP foe is former State Sen. Scott Wagner, who once suggested humans' "warm bodies" are contributing to climate change and called a voter expressing global-warming concerns as "young and naive." To be fair, Wagner has somewhat backed away from complete climate denial, but the bottom line remains: The world is on fire, and Pennsylvania's extinguisher-in-chief will be either Wolf's Tweedledee or Wagner's Tweedle-dumb. We deserve much better.

It didn't have to be this way. Wolf came into office in January 2015 with a firebrand environmental commissioner, plans for tougher regs, some stiff fines for polluters, and a scheme to take on Big Oil and Gas with a severance tax meant to aid Pennsylvania's underfunded schools. But the best legislature that massive oil-and-gas campaign contributions could buy refused to budge.

And so the commissioner was ousted. The biggest fine for a fracker was undone. Elsewhere, it's been one step up and one step back. A proposed deal for that severance tax also took a fox-guarding-the-henhouse approach to help Big Oil and Gas get permits (the deal never happened anyway.) Innovative regs to fight methane pollution from fracking rigs have taken two years to draft and don't cover existing sites. And that severance tax, which seemed like a good idea in 2014 (and which Wolf promises now to keep fighting for)? It would make school dollars dependent on keeping those fracking pads up and running — right when other states are looking at how to get out of the fossil-fuel business altogether.

"Pennsylvania alone produces 1 percent of the world's greenhouse gases," said Joe Minott of the Philadelphia-based Clean Air Council, who called it "too bad that climate change has not been more of an issue in this campaign." He urged the winner in the governor's race to push to cap methane pollution from existing fracking sites and also for a trading system to reduce carbon pollution. "We do not have the option of doing nothing."

Yet a lot depends not so much on the governor race but elections for the state legislature, especially the state House, where Democrats believe anger over Trump's policies in the Philadelphia suburbs gives them an outside shot at reclaiming a majority. If that fails — with a continued pro-fracking GOP legislature and without a shot of adrenaline directly into the heart of the Wolf administration — then the short-term forecast looks bleak, with a guaranteed two years of climate denial in D.C., and meaningful changes in Harrisburg on hold until the next governor arrives in January 2023. By then, according to the climate experts, we'll already be underwater. Figuratively, not literally. Not yet, anyway.