Green programs stir dissent in Pa. and DC

From Harrisburg to Washington, Republican lawmakers have spent the past few days lashing out at sweeping Democratic proposals to regulate fossil fuels and fund state programs.

But beyond the catchy names — “Green New Deal” and “Restore Pennsylvania” — the plans reveal the limits of environmental reform in a state where fossil fuels remain a key industry.

In Washington, a group of more than 70 lawmakers made a splash last week when they unveiled the Green New Deal — a broad plan and a set of guidelines to transition the country to 100 percent renewable energy before the worst effects of climate change are locked in. The plan, with freshmen Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., as its primary sponsor, calls for sweeping changes, from new high-speed railways to a federal jobs guarantee in the spirit of its 1930s namesake.

Supporters have discussed a series of potential funding plans, from sweeping tax hikes on the wealthy to a system of bonds like those used to fund hydroelectric power in the early 20th century. The plan has already earned backing from at least one Pennsylvania congressman: Brendan Boyle, D-2nd District.

Meanwhile, in Harrisburg, Gov. Tom Wolf has proposed his own infrastructure program — one that, like the Green New Deal, has come up against firm opposition from the fossil fuel industry.

Wolf’s Restore Pennsylvania plan would fund blight removal projects, remove lead and contaminants from municipal water supplies and promote “green infrastructure,” according to official press releases.

While Wolf has called on Republicans to back the bipartisan spending plan, the source of the money is more controversial: The governor wants a severance tax on natural gas drillers to raise the $4.5 billion budgeted for the program. Wolf has spent years calling for a tax on drilled gas volume, which all major natural gas-producing states except Pennsylvania already levy.

“It is far past time that Pennsylvanians stop allowing our commonwealth to be the only state losing out on the opportunity to reinvest in our communities,” Wolf said in a written statement. “And as long as that is allowed to continue — my vision of a restored Pennsylvania that is ready to compete in the 21st century economy will never become reality.”

At first glance, both plans might appear similar — targeting fossil fuel producers to fund sweeping public works projects, including green reforms. But the approach is notably different.

Although Wolf has issued executive orders calling on statewide emissions reductions, he does not take the firmly anti-fossil fuel stance shared by some fellow Democrats in Washington. Environmental activists have questioned the governor’s seriousness on the issue, especially with gas drilling, shipment and chemical processing set to produce more carbon emissions in the years to come.

When an activist questioned Wolf’s support for a “cracker” plant in Beaver County that would process gas into plastics, the governor answered: “We (have to) do this in an environmentally correct, the right way. We’ve got to figure it out, you know. If we want an either-or situation, I’m not your guy. I want to do both,” according to PennLive.

Regardless of the proposals’ extent, however, Republican lawmakers and energy industry representatives have reacted with equal anger in both capitals.

The state GOP again dismissed Wolf’s severance tax proposal, as its members did throughout Wolf’s first term. The tax and the Restore Pennsylvania plan could become part of the lengthy negotiation process as Wolf and the General Assembly game out a 2019-20 budget.

“Whether it’s calling for an irresponsible borrow and tax plan that holds Pennsylvania’s energy industry hostage to putting more government mandates on small businesses while our economy is booming, Pennsylvanians should be wary of a total buy-in to the governor’s plan,” party leaders said in a statement.

Industry figures did the same, with the Pennsy­lvania Independent Oil & Gas Association accusing Wolf of using “sleight of hand” to mask punitive taxes on a booming industry. Industry representatives cite existing impact fees levied on wells as contribution enough, although the revenue collected from the fee is less than the sum Wolf predicts for the severance tax.

In Washington, the Green New Deal proposal has stirred even more anger.

Power the Future, an energy industry group that claims to tell the stories of energy workers, called the plan the “Red New Deal” — with a green leaf turning to a hammer-and-sickle emblem — in a Twitter post. One GOP representative said the plan was impossible and suggested “grown-ups” should craft energy policy.

While Democrats control the House and several Democratic presidential hopefuls appear supportive of a Green New Deal, advocates face strong opposition and a president unlikely to ever help the. Even party leaders have questioned the plan; House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., mocked it as the “Green Dream.”

For his part, Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., suggested late last year that the economic impact of climate change — as predicted in a dire study by the Trump administration — may not be enough to warrant New Deal-style government projects.

“If you read it closely, what it says is that by the end of the century, the economic impact is tiny,” Toomey told a reporter from the website Vice. “We’ve got to weigh the cost of mitigation against the lost economic output there may be.”