Governor Slashes Science, Sierra Club's Jeff Schmidt Swings Back

State Impact's Scott Detrow reports Gov. Tom Corbett's (R-PA) administration has gutted funding for research on the environmental impacts of Marcellus Shale natural gas development. Despite numerous statements by Corbett, DEP director Mike Krancer, and Lt. Governor Jim Cawley that they make decisions "based on science" or "based on fact," the picture painted here seems to black out the science.

Detrow writes that Depart­ment of Con­ser­va­tion and Nat­ural Resources Sec­re­tary director Richard Allan has overseen "sig­nif­i­cant changes" to state sci­en­tific research projects exam­in­ing nat­ural gas drilling and cli­mate change impacts. "Last month, Allan slashed the bud­get of the agency’s wildlife research pro­gram by nearly 70 per­cent...with­out consulting the four-person staff respon­si­ble for vet­ting sub­mit­ted pro­pos­als and rec­om­mend­ing them for funding." According to the article, DCNR attrib­utes the cuts were caused by declin­ing rev­enue in the con­ser­va­tion program’s fund. However, DCNR's statement released no criteria for why one program was cut over another.

Under the Rendell administration in 2010, four studies on gas drilling impacts and climate change impacts were funded. This coming year: only one. Despite the endorsement of the Wild Resource Conservation Board to fund two studies on gas, two on climate, and eight others in October. Then the rules abruptly changed, the budget was gutted, seventeen studies were slashed. Only one natural gas study remained.

It appears that political maneuvering played a key role. Detrow reports,
In 2010, nine of the rec­om­mended research projects exam­ined the impact of cli­mate change, and four looked at nat­ural gas drilling’s impli­ca­tions. Before the board voted, a staffer rep­re­sent­ing Hutchin­son at the meet­ing read a state­ment express­ing “deep con­cern and reser­va­tion” about the rec­om­mended projects. “In the past the [con­ser­va­tion pro­gram] has sup­ported projects that sought to restore a vari­ety of plant and non-game species to their habi­tats. It seems to me that this theme is not being car­ried for­ward,” Hutchin­son had writ­ten. “Instead, it appears to me, that the com­mit­tee is being asked to rec­om­mend projects for fund­ing that…[are] based upon advanc­ing spe­cific pub­lic pol­icy agen­das rather than one that is more neu­tral and sci­en­tific based.” Hutchin­son said he was refer­ring to the cli­mate change projects.

Patrick Hen­der­son rep­re­sented Repub­li­can Sen­a­tor Mary Jo White at the meet­ing. He had a prob­lem with the projects, too. The offi­cial min­utes, approved by the board dur­ing its 2011 meet­ing, read, “Mr. Hen­der­son expressed con­cern about nat­ural gas extrac­tion being iden­ti­fied as an envi­ron­men­tal impact.” He said, “these projects may not war­rant this grant money,” ref­er­enc­ing sour­ing bud­get conditions.

Hen­der­son, of course, went on to become Gov­er­nor Corbett’s point man on energy and drilling poli­cies. As Energy Exec­u­tive, Hen­der­son sat on Corbett’s 2011 Mar­cel­lus Shale Advi­sory Com­mis­sion, and wrote the bulk of its final report.
Why does any of this matter? Detrow writes about the threat to scarlet tanager (pictured at right). These migratory songbirds require deep woods to thrive. As more well pads go in, there is less habitat for the birds. The 8-acre-per-well impact that's often quoted for Marcellus wells has a much larger impact in the forests. Including roads and all of the encroachment factors involved, the total impact can be 31 acres, roughly 1/3 of a kilometer per well. When you multiply that by the hundreds of wells in forests now and the thousands to come, the impacts become enormous. Wildlife is and will suffer.

The Response

The Sierra Club of Pennsylvania's Jeff Schmidt has come out swinging. In a press release today, he is quoted as saying, "Governor Corbett and DEP Secretary Mike Krancer repeatedly say they want sound science to dictate environmental policy in Pennsylvania. However, we have now learned that they are willing to slash funding for necessary scientific research to determine potential environmental harm for which their policies could be responsible. It is clear that the Corbett administration's political goals to promote gas drilling trump their claim to support sound science. In fact, the inconvenient reality is that while gas drilling is ruining drinking water supplies and wildlife habitat, the Corbett administration engages in a cover up of the true impacts."

The press release goes on to cite instances where DEP covered up a Cabot Oil and Gas spill in Lenox, Pennsylvania and ruled the company could cease supplying fresh water to the town of Dimock despite having been found to have polluted the town's water. To compound issues with the directorship of DCNR, earlier this week the Executive Director of the Conservation and Natural Resources Advisory Committee (CNRAC), who provides oversight of DCNR's oil and gas drilling activities on Pennsylvania's public forests and parks, was fired.

"The pattern of the Corbett administration's environmental policies is becoming more apparent every day," Schmidt continued. "We call on the General Assembly to halt the rush to drill in Pennsylvania, and to scrap legislation such as HB 1950, which was written by the Corbett administration. It is time our elected officials represented the people of Pennsylvania, not the out-of-state drillers."

We suspect that in the next 24 hours, the blogosphere will light up with this news as will other environmental organizations like PennFuture, PennEnvironment, and others.

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