Local congressmen renew push to ease forest drilling

Political Notebook

With a new Congress sworn in, Rep. Glenn “GT” Thompson, R-15th District, and Rep. John Joyce, R-13th District, are reviving efforts to ease oil and gas drilling in Pennsylvania’s only national forest.

It’s the third try for Thompson, who pushed two past attempts through a Republican-controlled House. His Cooperative Management of Mineral Rights Act — introduced earlier this month and discussed before the House last week — would stop the U.S. Forest Service from issuing new regulations on drilling in the Allegheny National Forest.

“I introduced a bill that protects private property rights,” Thompson told colleagues. “The Cooperative Management of Mineral Rights Act of 2019 will ensure that private property owners and energy producers in the Allegheny National Forest have access to the property.”

The forest, which sprawls over 513,000 acres in northern and western Pennsylvania, has been the site of fuel drilling since the 19th century. Now visited by tourists and hikers, the park has faced federal regulations on privately held mineral rights.

Thompson opposes those regulations, citing federal court rulings that stopped some forest mineral rules. In the past, Thompson has stressed that national forests — unlike national parks — are meant to provide natural resources and raw materials.

Environmental groups opposed past iterations of Thompson’s bill, which would affect only the Allegheny National Forest. While the land is accessible to the public, including campers and hikers, the mineral wealth underground is largely under private ownership.

“People don’t know the difference between a clearing for a well and a clearing for a campsite,” a local environmental activist told E&E News, an energy news outlet, amid a 2016 push to prevent regulations. “It just confounds me that the forest hasn’t blown up yet.”

Congress members don’t appear to agree. Thompson’s past efforts have passed easily; an attempt in 2017 made it through the House on a voice vote, indicating broad agreement. His past efforts stopped at the Senate.

It’s unclear how a newly Democratic-controlled House would handle the bill. Young and newly elected Democrats have pressed for laws that would phase out fossil fuels nationwide.

Still, Thompson’s effort represents a small part of a widespread rollback of earlier legislation that empowered federal agencies to regulate fuels. Former representative Bill Shuster long fought Environmental Protection Agency rules that regulated waterways, winning a key victory with an executive rollback last year.

Meanwhile, under President Donald Trump, the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management — which oversees vast federal lands mostly in the West — have discussed regulation rollbacks to allow more drilling in other federal lands.

Thompson’s bill awaits attention in the House, with Joyce among three cosponsors so far.

Toomey backs partial pay plan

Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., has signed on to a bill that would pay some federal workers, as the partial shutdown of the federal government drags into a full month.

Toomey was among some 20 GOP senators who cosponsored the so-called “Shutdown Fairness Act,” which would direct Treasury Department funds to the hundreds of thousands of federal employees working without pay.

“It is time to end government by crisis,” Toomey said in a written statement. “Every time Congress can’t agree on a funding bill, it’s our constituents and government employees that bear the brunt of Washington’s dysfunction.”

While the bill would pay those forced to work, it would leave hundreds of thousands more federal employees deemed “non-essential” without money indefinitely. The House rejected a similar measure last week to pay only some federal workers as the shutdown continues.

Lawmakers fear the shutdown’s effects could be felt more clearly as time passes. More Transportation Safety Administration employees have been calling in sick than usual, officials said, and a handful of employees and observers have publicly called for mass call-offs or even a strike.

Last week, federal officials called tens of thousands of IRS workers back without pay, deeming them “essential” after weeks out of work.

New reps get House jobs

New local state lawmakers have learned their committee assignments, preparing them for their legislative jobs before the House reconvenes later this month.

Rep. Jim Gregory, R-80th District, is set to serve on the House Tourism and Recreational Development, Aging and Older Adult Services, Human Services and Local Government committees.

“I am perhaps most pleased to have been assigned to the Human Services Committee, which will allow me to continue the fight against addiction,” Gregory said in a written statement. “This committee (and this issue) is gaining in attention for the very reason I ran for office.”

New Rep. Lou Schmitt, R-79th District, is slated to sit on the Commerce, Local Government, State Government, Trans­portation and Urban Affairs committees in the House.

“Service on these committees will not only provide me with the opportunity to address a broad range of important issues that affect all of us here in Pennsyl­vania, but will also allow me to focus on the key economic development and infrastructure issues that are so vital to the future prosperity and happiness of the citizens of the 79th Legislative District and our great Commonwealth,” Schmitt said.

House Committees decide which bills make their way for broad debate and final passage.

In other news:

n State Sen. Rich Alloway, R-33rd District, whose name was among potential candidates to replace Shuster, announced plans to step down from the state Senate on Friday.

Alloway did not give a specific reason for the retirement, which comes with nearly two years left in his term. He said he intends to “pursue new opportunities,” the Harrisburg Patriot-News reported.

Before last year’s election, Alloway had considered running for the redrawn 13th District seat now held by Joyce. The senator eventually decided against a run.