In an attempt to look for funding for public higher education, the Pennsylvania House and Senate voted – in a spineless bi-partisan effort – to submit and sell-out the State System of Higher Education (PASSHE) to our modern-day Robber Barons. With the passing of Senate Bill 367, The Indigenous Mineral Resources Act, they have fallen into the myth “that we – as a state – are too broke to publicly fund education and other safety nets, so now to fund those programs we me must find the highest bidder to take care of it,” and the myth they – especially the Democrats – have succumbed to will forever change the way we will value public education and public higher education.
In my article about the Audubon Society considering a $30 million proposition from Chesapeake Energy to fund restoration projects in the Marcellus Shale Region – a proposition that Audubon decided to turn down – I chronicled how public school districts in Shale Country had to turn to “the private sector” for adequate funding because Governor Corbett’s previous budgets gutted public education. For all intents and purposes, this is what Naomi Klein describes as “Shock Doctrine” and this should be considered a form of privatization. And now, “The Indigenous Mineral Resources Act” will lay the groundwork for the auctioning off of our State System of Higher Education because this bill will effectively force state universities to open their properties to natural gas drilling and other forms of minerals extraction as a way to offset budget cuts.
Last June, the Senate voted 48-2 and this past week the House voted 136-62 to send this bill to Governor Corbett’s desk. On top of the weak Democratic opposition to this bill, the main sponsor of this bill, Republican Senator Donald White, has received over $94,000 from the Natural Gas Industry. Thankfully, there were 2 Democrats outspoken against this bill. Senator Jim Ferlo – from Allegheny County and the only Senate Democrat to vote against the bill – described the opposition as “battle weary” from the previous Act 13 battle. When asked if this bill “slipped through the Senate floor,” Senator Ferlo’s response was “no, because of the funding to education.” I also spoke to Representative Greg Vitali from Havertown, a House Democrat opposed to the bill. He expressed his concerns about “who will be in control of the decision-making process.”
But before we get into implementation, let’s look at what is inside the bill.
The media coverage of SB 367 has been sparse and misleading. The Philadelphia Inquirer made it sound like the only universities affected will be those located in Shale Country. WNEY in Harrisburg made it look like the bill will benefit PASSHE – which I think is a complete farce. The bill will not only affect universities in the Marcellus Region, it will also affect universities sitting on limestone, coal or oil deposits. Section 4 (a)(1) of the bill states:
To make and execute contracts or leases in the name of the Commonwealth for the mining or removal of valuable coal, oil, natural gas, coal-bed methane and limestone which may be found in or beneath State system land.
The bill also states how funding will be distributed. Section 5 (b)(1), (2), and (3) states:
(1) Fifty percent shall be retained by the university where the coal, oil, natural gas, coal bed methane or limestone is leased or extracted and shall be used by the university for deferred maintenance projects or energy efficiency or energy cost saving improvements.
(2) Thirty-five percent shall be allocated to the State System of Higher Education for distribution among those universities where no coal, oil, natural gas, coal bed methane or limestone have been leased or extracted. The distribution formula shall be determined by the Board of Governors of the State System of Higher Education. Funds distributed under this paragraph shall only be used for deferred maintenance or energy efficiency or energy cost saving improvements.
(3) Fifteen percent shall be allocated to the system for distribution to all 14 universities for the waiver of tuition fees and other charges and fee…”
But the most outrageous section of the bill is Section 4 (a.1), which gives the president of the affected university the unilateral decision to decide if drilling or mining operations are allowed to proceed on a campus:
Limitations.‑‑The department may not make or execute a contract or lease under subsection (a)(1) unless the president of the system university affected by the contract or lease has provided the department with written authorization to proceed with negotiating a contract or lease.
According to Representative Vitali, this section of the bill raises serious concerns because he is worried that the presidents will become puppets for Chancellor Cavanaugh and the Board of Governors. Another real concern this bill creates is the vetting process when new university professors or presidents are hired. What will happen to university presidential candidates if they openly express any thought that mining for natural resources on a college campus is not conducive for proper learning conditions? Or if that professor’s research notes DEP data that 7% of all natural gas wells will have cement casings fail on the very first time the wells are fracked?
Speaking with Berks County Senate Democrat Judy Schwank, she explained that she originally voted against the bill. But when amendments to the bill were made, especially the amendments about how the royalties and rent payments would be distributed (50% to the university, 35% to PASSHE and 15% to scholarships and tuition fees), she voted for the bill along with many of her colleagues. I asked Senator Schwank about Representative Vitali’s concerns regarding the unilateral decision-making delegated to university presidents. Her response was that she trusts university presidents to consult with their administration – it’s pretty obvious that she hasn’t had lunch with President Cevallos from Kutztown, who I could see re-opening the limestone quarry on campus without a second thought.
With all the hard work PASSHE students, professors and support staff have been doing to reinstate public funding to the state system over the past couple of years, this is the payback we got from our “allies” in Harrisburg. When the governor decides to take an axe to higher education funding once again, we can expect him to tell us to exploit the natural resources on university grounds if we’ve got a problem with the cuts. Maybe then we will see the devastating costs of this bill. Maybe we’ll be treated to the irony of a prospective college student whose water has been contaminated by fracking, will receive a corporate scholarship from Chesapeake Energy or Cabot Oil and Gas – two of Pennsylvania’s biggest environmental felons.
But then again, maybe this is just a sign that those who voted for this bill haven’t, or probably won’t, send their children to a PASSHE school. Who cares about all those “others,” anyway? Who cares about the health and safety of faculty, staff, and, yes, even managers who will suffer long-term exposure to the by-products of “indigenous mineral resource development”? Who needs a clock tower when you’ve got a nice shiny fracking well overlooking your campus? Welcome to Frack U.
Sean Kitchen is an Assistant Editor and Social Media Organizer for Raging Chicken Press. He is student at Kutztown University.