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Why Pa.'s fracked-up spending deal is an environmental nightmare

From shoddy, polluting pipelines to a surge in global warming, fossil fuels are having a terrible year. But not in Pennsylvania.

A natural gas drilling site in the Susquehanna County township of New Milford, Pa.
A natural gas drilling site in the Susquehanna County township of New Milford, Pa.Read moreRichard Drew/Associated Press

Malinda Clatterbuck has made all kinds of new friends in her community's fight to block the $3 billion natural gas project with such a cheerful name — the Atlantic Sunrise Pipeline — from plowing through her bucolic farming township bordering the Susquehanna River in Lancaster County, some 70 miles west of Philadelphia.

That includes the neighbors — roughly 1,000 in all, she said — who've said they're willing to stand in front of bulldozers and risk arrest rather than allow  Williams Corp. of Oklahoma to build the 200-mile link that would allow frackers in Pennsylvania's Marcellus Shale region to ship gas to the Gulf Coast, where it can be exported overseas. Especially the nuns from Adorers of the Blood of Christ, who put up a makeshift "prayer chapel" in a cornfield on the pipeline route in their appeal to higher powers to block the project awaiting final approval from state regulators.

The people who haven't been friends to Clatterbuck in this epic battle have been the politicians from both parties who — their pockets often bulging with campaign donations from Big Oil and Gas — tout the economic benefits of projects like the Atlantic Sunrise while shielding their ears from the pleas of property owners. "When it comes to the environment, whether it's Democrats or Republicans, the industry has them in their back pocket," she told me this week. "It doesn't matter which party you belong to."

Clatterbuck felt that way before the latest environmental outrage to emanate from upriver in Harrisburg: News of a proposed state spending deal that not only hits everyday consumers with new taxes much harder than it hits the lucrative oil-and-gas business, but that essentially hands the keys for permitting new fracking rigs over to industry while obliterating proposed pollution regulations that could curb climate change caused by methane.

John Quigley, who came in as head of the state Department of Environmental Protection at the start of the Democratic Wolf administration in 2015, pledging a crackdown on abuses by the fracking industry, only to anger lawmakers and get ousted a year later, told me the proposed changes are so pro-fossil-fuel that "it's dangerous to the public health and the environment and a degradation of the public trust." And the outrage is bipartisan; a former GOP DEP commissioner, David Hess, told StateImpact Pennsylvania that "[t]his proposal is so far away from the norm that it is almost incomprehensible and, I think, irresponsible."

Critics of the tentative deal like Quigley said the key provision in the plan — which would allow businesses to shop for presumably favorable outside contractors to issue environmental permits instead of DEP regulators, and which doesn't even provide for public hearings — strikes them as unconstitutional.

What's more, the timing is stunning. It comes in summer 2017 as fossil fuels are having a moment: A terrible moment. In Pennsylvania, the race to crisscross the commonwealth with new pipelines — mostly not to benefit local consumers but to allow companies that invested billions in fracking over the last decade to get Pennsylvania's buried treasure to more lucrative foreign markets — has infuriated homeowners who can't understand why regulators ruled that these projects that benefit Big Oil and Gas' profit margin are "a public utility." It's really hit home this summer in Chester County, where much of the work on Sunoco's Mariner 2 pipeline was halted for a time after the construction polluted the wells of some homeowners.

And the pipeline fiasco is happening right at the moment that man-made climate change — with greenhouse-gas pollution from fossil fuels the leading cause — is clearly reaching crisis levels. Just Tuesday morning, U.S. government scientists leaked a major report showing that the rate of global warming has rapidly accelerated since 1980; the experts were fearful the pro-industry Trump administration would try to cover up their findings. Or just turn on the news to see 100-degree days in the once mild Pacific Northwest, or the worst flooding in New Orleans since Hurricane Katrina, just two examples of how our weather is becoming more extreme and more deadly as the Earth heats up.

It's hard to imagine a worse time for Pennsylvania to double down on fossil fuels. But an industry that doled out at least $883,000 in campaign contributions to key lawmakers last year and that spends many millions more on lobbying has a strange way of persuading your public officials to forget their duties to the actual public. Ever see those political cartoons from the 19th century of bloated lawmakers gorged on the monopoly money during the era when John D. Rockefeller's oil men were pillaging the land in upstate Pennsylvania? Nothing has really changed. The world is on fire right now, and Harrisburg wants to party like it's 1899.

The pending budget deal, which has already passed the state Senate and is said to have the blessing of Gov. Wolf, contains a political master stroke: Pennsylvania's first-ever severance tax on oil-and-gas drilling (every other major producing state, including ultraconservative ones like Texas and Wyoming, already has one) to bring in an estimated $100 million. That's better than nothing, and lawmakers will surely tout it as proof that they're not wholly owned subsidiaries of Big Business. But the tax is still pretty small potatoes — far less than the rate in neighboring West Virginia, for example — and it's dwarfed by the $300 million the state plans to tax from us, the energy consumers.

That's appalling, but not as outrageous as the plan to let oil and gas interests take control of a permitting process that had already seemed stacked in favor of business under DEP control — except it apparently wasn't stacked enough for Big Oil and Gas. And other provisions in the deal are just as bad, including a plan to place regulation of methane emissions from fracking sites — an enormous contributor to climate change — under control of a commission named by our industry-friendly state political leadership. "It's many times more powerful than carbon dioxide," said Quigley, describing methane's potency as a greenhouse gas, "and it's an ozone pollution problem for asthmatics in Pennsylvania … and we have over a million."

The chattering classes are getting on Harrisburg's case to resolve the state's budget hole as soon as humanly possible. Indeed, it seems that the governor's desire for budgetary harmony, which will help his reelection next year, is what has motivated him to give up so much to our oil- and gas-besotted lawmakers. But while an ongoing budget stalemate is bad, it's not as bad as this new and completely unnecessary assault on a planet already in the midst of an existential crisis. If you care about the environment in Pennsylvania, call your state House member or Wolf's office and tell them to reject this lousy deal before it's too late.

In Lancaster County, citizens determined to reverse Pennsylvania's fossil-fuel regime are busy practicing civil disobedience techniques to stop the pipeline. "Our only hope is our nonviolent training," said Clatterbuck, who hopes the "moral dilemma" of citizens standing in front of bulldozers will finally force the state's politicians to do the right thing. So far, nothing else has worked.