By Paul M. King

Gov. Corbett has taken office at a precarious time for Pennsylvania's environment. Over the past 40 years, we have made tremendous progress in addressing the legacy of three centuries of environmental degradation, but the effort is far from complete. While recognizing that our limited fiscal resources demand innovative thinking, we must continue the job we've started.

Without question, development of the Marcellus Shale is the most immediate environmental issue facing the state. We must avoid repeating the kind of mistakes that have ravaged our landscape and led to continuing costs.

Provided it's done properly, development of the Marcellus Shale can be of tremendous benefit to our economy and communities, and Pennsylvania can become a leader in sustainable development of shale gas. Corbett's proposed Marcellus Shale Commission is a good idea. But there is no time to lose in ensuring that we are ready to deal with environmental problems.

The prolonged recession has been exceptionally hard on Pennsylvania's environment. The Departments of Environmental Protection and of Conservation and Natural Resources have experienced the most dramatic budget cuts in Harrisburg. In addition, money from the Growing Greener program and the Oil and Gas Lease Fund has been diverted from environmental programs to help balance the state budget.

These cuts have occurred despite demonstrated environmental needs and new state and federal protection and restoration mandates. Nearly 19,000 miles of our rivers and streams fail to meet clean-water standards. The expected costs of cleaning up abandoned mines exceed $1 billion. And the Susquehanna River basin faces new Chesapeake Bay mandates that will present significant costs to communities. Without reinvigorated state investment, these costs and problems will only multiply.

The administration and the General Assembly must make a commitment to meet these pressing needs with new and innovative funding methods and by restoring the budgets of state environmental agencies and programs. There are many opportunities to generate the needed revenue, including a severance tax or fee on natural gas. In addition, revenues in the Oil and Gas Lease Fund will be increasing dramatically due to gas drilling on state land, and a share of those funds must be used for environmental programs, many of which will be challenged by Marcellus Shale development.

Environmental costs will only increase over time, and without these investments, Pennsylvania will not be able to meet its responsibilities under state and federal programs. In fact, the state may lose out on additional private and federal matching funds.

Storm-water pollution in particular is another continuing environmental challenge for communities throughout Pennsylvania. Despite a long-standing statutory requirement, our state has failed to manage storm water in any comprehensive way. As a result, local governments are left to address the issue on their own.

Over the past two legislative sessions, there has been innovative, bipartisan legislation to help communities tackle this complex, costly problem. However, this legislation has not been properly measured against the very real costs to communities experiencing storm water and flooding damage, and it has stalled as a result.

There is also the continuing challenge of conservation. Pennsylvania's natural resources can be a catalyst for economic growth and partnerships between the public and private sectors. This principle is embodied in DCNR's Conservation Landscapes Initiative, which seeks to engage an array of interests in jointly promoting resource protection and economic development. This approach should be supported in the new administration.

Despite the state's budgetary challenges, we should look for innovative ways to continue to improve Pennsylvanians' environment and quality of life. That's good for business as well as the environment.

Paul M. King is president of the Pennsylvania Environmental Council.