Gov. Wolf’s Call for Severance Tax Ignores Looming Climate Crisis

Photo credit: Progress Ohio, Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

Governor Wolf plans to renew his call for a severance tax on unconventional natural gas drilling during Tuesday’s budget address. Pennsylvania is the only major gas-producing state that does not tax drillers for the gas they extract from shale formations using hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. As crazy as giving away our natural resources all these years sounds, enacting a severance tax in Pennsylvania would be even crazier. Here are just a few reasons why.

Climate Change

The list of reasons to oppose a severance tax on fracking can really begin and end with this one. Climate scientists are imploring us to make the swiftest possible transition possible away from fossil fuels. Period. Yes, Obama regularly promoted natural gas as the bridge fuel that would get us through the transition. It’s worth noting that the phrase “bridge fuel” was not created by Obama’s policy advisors, but by the president of the American Gas Association in 1988. Natural gas is widely touted as being the cleaner burning fossil fuel. (Cleaner, not clean. It’s about 60% as dirty as coal or oil.) But that’s only part of the story.

Natural gas’ main ingredient, methane, is 86 times more efficient at trapping heat than carbon dioxide is in the handful of years we have left to address climate change. For many years, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency discounted the climate impacts of methane emitted from natural gas production. It considered the emissions to be so negligible that it didn’t include them in its greenhouse gas inventory of oil and gas production. Peer-reviewed studies measuring methane leakage rates at well pads changed all of that. A leakage rate of anything more than three percent cancels out any climate benefits burning natural gas provides. Leakage rates of 6 – 12 percent are fairly commonplace, with even higher localized spikes. In fact, alarmingly high leakage rates are found at every phase of natural gas production. The problem doesn’t end there. Pennsylvania is dotted with orphaned and abandoned wells, some dating back more than a century. Every well drilled today will become part of a legacy of hundreds of thousands of wells that need to be maintained every 25 years to prevent methane from leaking from them unchecked. The state’s Department of Environmental Protection has not even come close to finding, much less capping, the vast majority of them.

When all of those leaks are taken into account, natural gas is a dirtier fossil fuel than coal or oil and not at all anything close to being a bridge fuel. For the sake of the planet, it should stay in the ground, as should all fossil fuels. Imposing a severance tax on natural gas would institutionalize its production, something we can ill-afford.

Impacts on the Ground

Pennsylvania is widely regarded as the world’s negative role model on fracking. Elected officials, journalists, filmmakers, scientists, medical professionals, students, celebrities, activists, and concerned citizens from dozens of countries and states have visited Pennsylvania to learn from our terrible example. What they have seen here has informed decisions among government officials to put in place moratoria and bans in New York, Maryland, and elsewhere.

No sitting Pennsylvania governor has ever gone to a fracked community to see the impacts firsthand, by the way.

More than 900 peer-reviewed studies point to a wide variety of adverse impacts linked to fracking. Many of them focus on or include data from Pennsylvania. The studies back up the anecdotal evidence Pennsylvanians have been providing to state regulators for years, only to have their claims ignored. A reporter for StateImpact PA published a buzzwords list that was distributed to Department of Health staffers in 2012 with verbal instructions to disengage with people using the words and phrases while registering fracking-related health complaints, according to retired whistleblowers. Fracking, hair falling out, skin rash, and Marcellus were among the trigger words and phrases. More recently, the DEP turned over 9.442 complaints of water contamination in response to a Right-to-Know request from industry watchdog, Public Herald. The complaints span the period January 1, 2004 through November 29, 2016. During that same period, the DEP determined that 285 private water supplies had been contaminated by fracking. Thousands of complaints went unaddressed and, therefore, unresolved.

A severance tax might seem somewhat justifiable if it was intended to pay for all of the damage the industry is doing, but that’s not how the money would be used. Wolf campaigned on using the severance tax to pay for education and other cash-strapped state programs. An impact fee was established under Tom Corbett to pay for local impacts, but a report late last year from the Auditor General found that millions of impact fee dollars had been misappropriated, paying for things like a community pool, a fireworks display, and  a performance by a former American Idol contestant. Any attempts to make better use of the money might not be possible under Wolf’s severance tax plan. He has said that his tax would replace the impact fee.

Politics

By the way, where is that bridge Obama talked about, anyway?  Trump’s regime would surely burn it if it existed, but it doesn’t exist. Construction never even began. Politicians on both sides of the aisle regard natural gas as, not the last fossil fuel, but the next.

Unlike his fellow Democrats who talk about climate change and pepper their talking points with the phrase “bridge fuel”, Governor Wolf puts on no pretense about his desire to see natural gas extraction continue, even expand. Last year, Wolf entered into a partnership with the governors of Ohio and West Virginia to attract shale-related manufacturing to the region. He has full-throatedly supported turning Philadelphia into a gas hub that has been described as the Houston of Pennsylvania. He has cheered the coming of ethane processing plants in western PA and Sunoco Logistics’ Mariner East II pipeline. His DEP has approved the majority of the 47 new natural gas power plants given the green light since January 1, 2014. Last fall, he announced the new PIPE program that moves $24 million from an alternative energy program to incentivize more pipeline development by funding the “last mile” of pipeline that would connect schools and hospitals, among others, to natural gas service, thereby creating a market for the stuff.

Shortly before he left his post as Wolf’s DEP chief, John Quigley referred to 100 years of gas drilling to come in Pennsylvania in an interview with an industry publication. He also talked about tens of thousands of new miles of natural gas pipelines in his remarks at the first meeting of the Pipeline Infrastructure Task Force he chaired. He said that the task force’s goal was to build public acceptance of the industry.

All of the Wolf administration’s plans hinge on its ability to continue to ignore climate change, sick and dying Pennsylvanians, contaminated water, polluted air, safety concerns, compromised natural resources, damage to infrastructure, increased crime, maintenance of decommissioned wells in perpetuity, and all of the other costs on the side of the balance sheet the state strains not to see. Some of the damage cannot be undone. And all of this has happened in fracking’s infancy in Pennsylvania. To date, 10,135 unconventional wells have been drilled in Pennsylvania. The industry’s goal is to drill somewhere between 100,000 and 200,000 wells in the state.

Why has Wolf been so determined to ignore fracking’s impact on his constituents and the natural resources he is constitutionally bound to protect? For the same reason Ed Rendell failed to take even a moment to study the potential impacts fracking would have before turning the keys to the state over to the oil and gas industry – the severance tax. Sure, they also talked up the jobs that would be created, but that myth was exposed years ago. The only reason Wolf is willing to frack at all costs is because he sees dollar signs.

In Pennsylvania, when it comes to fracking, the only difference between Republicans and Democrats is that Republicans are willing to give away all of our natural resources, our health, our safety, and our climate while Democrats want to sell those things. The severance tax is nothing more than the price of admission.