Friday, July 1, 2016

Learning Lessons from Gas Drilling's Boom, Bust

Andrea Sears, Public News Service (

Some communities where gas production boomed now are struggling. (Molly/Flickr)
Some communities where gas production boomed now are struggling. (Molly/Flickr)
HARRISBURG, Pa. – Pennsylvania gets poor grades for its response to the boom in shale gas drilling, but a pair of new reports could help communities prepare for the future.

The Multi-State Shale Research Collaborative, a partnership of Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia, has issued a report card on shale gas policies, as well as a guide to help local governments facing gas drilling.

Jan Jarrett, a consultant to the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center, says right now there's a lull in the rapid expansion of drilling activity, but industry experts expect another boom when prices go back up.

As Jarrett put it, "Municipalities can stand back and say, 'OK, what can we do the next time it comes around? We know what it's going to be like, so how can we best prepare for that in the future?'"

On the state level, Pennsylvania got failing grades for its lack of an effective natural gas property-tax policy and its failure to mitigate the effects of the boom and bust on local communities.

As Jarrett points out, those fluctuations have left several communities in the state struggling to adjust.

"Where once there was lots of economic activity, new hotels built, lots of business at local restaurants, now all of a sudden, you see some experiencing real slumps," she said.

In contrast, West Virginia, which has both severance and property taxes on gas drillers, has created a fund to help communities deal with boom and bust cycles.

There are many questions about the future of shale gas drilling, but Jarrett says these reports will allow policy makers to take the best ideas from neighboring states and implement them in their own.

"That way, we can make sure that there's an even playing field across the three states to avoid a race to the bottom in terms of how the states are managing the impacts of drilling," Jarrett said.

The reports focus only on social and economic issues, and do not address the states' environmental or public-health policies.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Groups Call for End of Federal Coal Leasing Program

Andrea Sears, Public News Service

Advocates say coal-leasing reform must take climate change into account. (Sierra Club)
Advocates say coal-leasing reform must take climate change into account. (Sierra Club)
PITTSBURGH -- Community leaders, environmentalists and public health advocates rallied in Pittsburgh on Tuesday, calling on the U.S. Department of Interior to reform the federal coal-leasing program. During a public listening session, they said the program is broken, outdated and ignores the threat of climate change.

Randy Francisco, a senior organizing representative for the Sierra club, said these sessions were the first opportunity the public has had to weigh in on the climate impact of coal mined on public lands.

"This review should acknowledge scientific consensus that the vast majority of fossil fuels must remain in the ground in order to avoid the worst effects of climate disruption," he said.

About 400 million tons of coal are mined on public lands every year, representing 40 percent of all coal burned in the United States. Francisco said air and water pollution from coal can trigger asthma attacks, respiratory illness and even cancer. He said the industry pays royalties for coal from public land that are far less than what the oil and gas industry pays.

"Federal coal royalties rates (are) currently 8 percent for underground coal (and) 12.5 (percent) for surface-mined coal," he said. "They have not changed in 30 years and they are far below the 18.5 percent royalty rate on offshore oil and gas."

Francisco said the federal coal-leasing program is noncompetitive, fails to meet mining reclamation standards and is self-insured against environmental damage by companies now in bankruptcy. He said Tuesday's hearing was the last of six the Interior Department has held across the country as it considers reforms to the coal-leasing program.

"It's basically a review of their whole program," he said, "and then they'll hopefully make positive changes that will help mitigate climate change, protect those public lands and keep that coal in the ground."

According to the Sierra Club, reforms must consider climate and health impacts of fossil-fuel extraction, and move toward clean, renewable energy.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Reproductive-Rights Advocates Praise Supreme Court’s Texas Ruling

Andrea Sears, Public News Service

House Bill 1948 would limit abortions after 20 weeks and ban one procedure. (Ruhrfisch/Wikimedia Commons)
House Bill 1948 would limit abortions after 20 weeks and ban one procedure. (Ruhrfisch/Wikimedia Commons)
HARRISBURG, Pa. – The U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling Monday on a Texas law restricting access to abortion services calls the constitutionality of similar laws, including Pennsylvania's, into question.

The 5-to-3 ruling found that two key provisions of the Texas law impose an "undue burden" on women's right to choose.

According to Sari Stevens, director of Planned Parenthood Pennsylvania Advocates, the ruling sets a standard that opens Pennsylvania's Act 122 to legal challenge.

"It does not strike down Act 122, but it provides fodder for a state-by-state fight all across the country and we'll learn a lot more in the weeks and months to come," she points out.

Act 122 was passed in 2011. Like the Texas law, it requires surgical abortion clinics to meet requirements for ambulatory surgical facilities.

Although not as severe as the Texas law, Stevens points out that Act 122 had a similar impact on the availability of abortion services.

"A number of abortion facilities closed,” she states. “Each facility that complied spent up to hundreds of thousands of dollars on structural changes. It increased cost and limited access."

While supporters of Act 122 maintained it was to protect women's health, Stevens says Monday's Supreme Court ruling proves the intent of such laws is to restrict access to abortion.

Stevens notes that the ruling comes just a week after the Pennsylvania House passed HB 1948, a bill she says would give the state one of the most restrictive abortion laws in the country.

"Women deserve access to reproductive health without barriers or political roadblocks,” she stresses. “The Supreme Court upheld that right and we hope that the Pennsylvania Legislature will heed that decision."

HB 1948 may come up for a vote in the State Senate this week.

Monday, June 27, 2016

Study Shows Clean Power Plan Saves Money

Andrea Sears, Public News Service

A cost effective clean power plan would save Pennsylvania households an average $1,880 over the next 15 years. (Rennett Stowe/flickr.com)
A cost effective clean power plan would save Pennsylvania households an average $1,880 over the next 15 years. (Rennett Stowe/flickr.com)
HARRISBURG, Pa. – Implementing a clean power plan could cut carbon emissions and save Pennsylvania consumers money, according to a new study by the Georgia Institute of Technology.

Opponents of the Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan maintain that enforcing mandatory reductions in emissions from power plants would bankrupt the nation.

But Marilyn Brown, the study’s author, says there are cost effective ways to go about it.

"What we're showing is in fact if done wisely, we can save consumers money and also prevent fossil fuels from heating up the planet," she states.

The report says if nothing is done, electric bills would go up in Pennsylvania by more than 22 percent over the next 15 years, but with the Clean Power Plan, the average household would save almost $1,900 in the same time period.

The U.S. Supreme Court put the plan on hold during a legal challenge by 27 states and a number of corporations.

But Joe Minott, executive director of the Clean Air Council, says Gov. Tom Wolf is still committed to developing a clean power plan for Pennsylvania.

"There are various attempts by the legislature to interfere with the governor's right to come up with a plan that are slowing things down, but generally environmentalists are pretty optimistic that we'll come up with a good plan," Minott says.

Even if the courts strike down the EPA's plan, states are free to implement plans of their own.

Some suggest phasing out coal-fired power plants by increasing reliance on natural gas, but gas also is a potent contributor to climate change.

Brown points out that increasing energy efficiency is a piece of the puzzle that's often overlooked.

"If we cut back on our electricity requirements by investing in efficient equipment, then we can prevent the build-up of this expensive infrastructure that would not serve the next generation very well," he explains.

Nationally, the goal of the EPA’s Clean Power Plan is a 32 percent reduction in carbon emissions by 2030, slowing global climate change, saving billions of dollars in health care costs, and preventing up to 6,600 premature deaths.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Map Displays Methane Threats in PA

Andrea Sears, Public News Service 

About 1.5 million Pennsylvanians live within a half mile of an oil or gas facility. (USGS/Wikimedia Commons)
About 1.5 million Pennsylvanians live within a half mile of an oil or gas facility. (USGS/Wikimedia Commons)
HARRISBURG, Pa. -- Methane pollution is a health hazard, studies have found, and now an online map can tell you how close that risk is to you.

About 1.5 million people live within a half mile of one or more of the more than 100,000 oil and gas facilities operating in Pennsylvania. Studies show that those people are at greatest risk of the negative health impact of methane exposure, including fetal damage and respiratory ailments.

Conrad Schneider, advocacy director for the Clean Air Task Force, said the new online map can help people assess the risk they face in their own homes.

"We hope that, armed with this information, they will demand protective safeguards requiring the industry to clean up its act and reduce these serious risks to public health," he said.

In May, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency finalized standards to cut methane emissions from new sources, but those standards don't cover the hundreds of thousands of already existing facilities.

According to Patrice Tomcik, a western Pennsylvania field organizer for Moms Clean Air Force, two studies of methane impacts on unborn children have been done in Pennsylvania, including one in Butler County where she lives.

"What it showed," she said, "is that there are adverse birth outcomes that are happening the closer that these moms are to gas development."

The map also shows hospitals and schools that are located within a half-mile radius of oil and gas facilities.

Nationally, people living in 238 counties in 21 states face increased risks of cancer. Schneider said those primarily are gas and oil-producing states, and reducing methane emissions would help.

"That will reduce emissions of these toxic air pollutants like benzene and ethylbenzene and formaldehyde as well," he said, "the ones that are causing these cancer risks."

The EPA has begun the process of formulating new regulations to curb emissions from existing sources.

The map is online at oilandgasthreatmap.com.

Monday, June 6, 2016

A Plan to Restore Hope in the Coalfields of Appalachia

Andrea Sears, Public News Service

Land purchased from bankrupt coal companies could help revive Appalachian economies. (Shuvaev/Wikimedia Commons)
Land purchased from bankrupt coal companies could help revive Appalachian economies. (Shuvaev/Wikimedia Commons)
HARRISBURG, Pa. - With the decline of the coal industry in Appalachia, there are plenty of ideas being floated to revive the region's economy.

Former journalist Jim Branscome calls his the Appalachian Homestead Act, an idea he detailed in recent op-ed articles in some of the region's largest newspapers.

He proposes using land the federal government would purchase from bankrupted coal companies to help people in Appalachia revive the economy and, in turn, restore hope.

"The application of the proposal for homesteading applies from northern Alabama all the way to northern Pennsylvania," he says. "Same, similar problems."

Branscome compares his idea to the settling of the West, providing land for people to farm and garden, to graze livestock and to create business opportunities.

He believes it may be "today's single best solution to the enduring problem of mountain poverty."

A native of Virginia's coalfields, Branscome says for decades the national media has portrayed the region as a place where people are lazy, with many depending on welfare to get by.

"And the truth is, can you image anybody that is harder working than a coal miner," he says. "Can you imagine anybody who's harder working than a farmer scratching out a living in the hills of Appalachia? We're talking about some of the most enterprising people on the face of the earth."

Branscome stresses that the critical element of his proposal is inspiring people to restore a "sense of pride and progress."

But he admits his optimism is tempered by his experiences reporting on a region that's "at the bottom of the poorest."

"Despite all of this advocacy, and despite all of the political power and newspaper power that was brought," he says. "We still haven't managed to change the fundamental economic basis of those areas, and homesteading is one way to do that."

Branscome says he has received an overwhelming response to his call for an Appalachian Homestead Act.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Pediatricians Rally for Access to Pre-K

Andrea Sears, Public News Service

About 120,000 children from low-income families in Pennsylvania have no publicly funded pre-K. (Chris Morgan/flickr.com)
About 120,000 children from low-income families in Pennsylvania have no publicly funded pre-K. (Chris Morgan/flickr.com)
HARRISBURG, Pa. - Pediatric hospital residents rallied in Harrisburg this week, asking Gov. Tom Wolf and state legislators to invest more in high-quality pre-kindergarten education.

According to a new report from the state chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, quality pre-K programs help promote a child's healthy cognitive, social and emotional development. According to Suzanne Yunghans, executive director of the chapter, the pre-K years are crucial to healthy child development.

"That's when the child's brain is developing," she said. "That's when neurons are connecting. That's when children have the most opportunity to really take advantage of a rich educational environment."

The pediatricians are calling for an increase of $90 million in state spending on pre-KI education in the budget for the fiscal year that beginsJuly 1, giving an additional 7,400 3- and 4-year-olds access to pre-K programs.

The report said the stress of poverty actually can alter a young child's brain, undermining his or her ability to learn, think and interact with others. But Yunghans said nearly 70 percent, or about 120,000, of the children in low-income households in the state lack access to publicly funded, high quality pre-K.

"Providing pre-K opportunities for those children gives them a leg up," she said, "so that they're ready to learn when they hit kindergarten with their peers."

Pre-K programs also have been shown to promote better health in children and to lower rates of smoking, substance abuse, diabetes and heart disease throughout their lives.

As Yunghans noted, investing in children literally is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

"Every child that doesn't have this opportunity now will never be able to recapture those preschool years," she said. "So by not funding it now, we've missed investing in these children in the future."

More information is online at prekforpa.org.

Friday, May 13, 2016

Senators Propose Solution to PA Budget Deficit

Andrea Sears, Public News Service

Pennsylvania has been named one of the “Terrible Ten” worst states for tax fairness. (Jason/Flickr)
Pennsylvania has been named one of the “Terrible Ten” worst states for tax fairness. (Jason/Flickr)
HARRISBURG, Pa. - A state senator says he's found a way to help balance the Commonwealth's budget and spend more on education without raising taxes on low and middle-income taxpayers.

Pennsylvania's constitution doesn't allow legislators to tax the same kinds of income at different rates.

But Marc Stier, director for the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center, says a bill proposal by Democratic Senator Art Haywood to raise taxes on certain kinds of income that mostly go to the wealthy would be allowed.

"We calculate that if we tax that second class of income at four percent rate, it would bring in about $788 million, which gets us about halfway to closing the structural deficit," says Stier.

That "second class" of income would include business income, dividends, capital gains, rents and several other kinds of income that most people don't receive.

The state currently is facing a structural deficit of $1.8 billion.

According to Stier, under Haywood's bill the 60 percent of households with incomes below $65,000 a year would pay between $2 and $28 a year more in taxes.

And those with incomes up to $200,000 would pay an extra $118 a year.

"On the other hand, the top one percent, people making $463,000 or more, would pay an additional $5,304 a year," says Stier. "And they're the ones who can afford it."

The Senate bill, S 1258, is based on a proposal the Budget and Policy Center brought forward last month.

When all state and local taxes, including sales tax, are taken into account, the lowest 20 percent of households in Pennsylvania currently pay about 12 percent of their income in taxes, while the top one percent pay only about four percent.

Stier says most states try to balance that by taxing high incomes at a higher rate.

"We can't do that in Pennsylvania," he says. "And that's why we're one of the 'Terrible Ten,' one of the 10 worst states in terms of tax fairness in the entire country."

Senator Haywood introduced the bill on Wednesday. What happens next is up to the leadership in both houses of the Legislature.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Most Voters Want Hearings for Supreme Court Nominee

Andrea Sears, Public News Service 

President Obama nominated Merrick Garland for the U.S. Supreme Court on March 16. (The White House/Wikimedia Commons)
President Obama nominated Merrick Garland for the U.S. Supreme Court on March 16. (The White House/Wikimedia Commons)
HARRISBURG, Pa. - Voters say the U.S. Senate should go forward with confirmation hearings on President Obama's nominee to the U.S. Supreme Court, according to a new survey.

It's been almost two months since Obama nominated Merrick Garland to replace the late Antonin Scalia, but Senate Republicans have refused to hold hearings, saying that choice should be up to the next president. Benton Strong, managing director of communications for the Center for American Progress, said a new poll of voters in five key states, including Pennsylvania, shows Republicans are losing that debate.

"In fact, voters, even more overwhelmingly than a month ago, see that the Senate should go forward and have a hearing and a vote on a Supreme Court nominee," he said. "They think that the president's done his job and now the Senate should do its job."

Almost 70 percent of voters, including majorities of Republicans and conservatives, told the poll they believe Garland should get an up or down vote in the Senate. Moreover, Strong said, voters say a senator's opposition to holding hearings would have a negative impact on their opinion of that senator, including Pennsylvania's Pat Toomey.

"What we found was that 38 percent of people would view him less favorably," Strong said. "That's over the just 20 percent of people who would view him more favorably."

Slightly more than three-quarters of all voters said they are likely to take a candidate's position on the nomination into account when they vote in November.

Strong said the poll also asked whether voters would be more likely to be concerned about the nomination process if a four-to-four split on the court could threaten issues important to them.

"Demographics such as African-American, Latinos, unmarried women, said absolutely," he said, "and larger numbers said we would get engaged in this process because we think that this is very important."

Almost two-thirds of voters polled said they think the reasons for not holding a confirmation hearing are political, not based on a conviction that it's best for the country.

The survey results are online at americanprogress.org.

Thursday, May 5, 2016

It’s Official: Senator Toomey Wants to Hand Supreme Court Appointment to...Donald Trump

From American United for Change www.americansunitedforchange.org 

Washington DC -- With Donald Trump becoming the presumptive Republican presidential nominee Tuesday night after Senator Ted Cruz suspended his campaign, Americans United for Change President Brad Woodhouse issued the following statement on the implications for Senator Pat Toomey’s blockade of the President’s Supreme Court nominee Judge Merrick Garland, who brings to the table more federal judicial experience than any other nominee in history:

"It's official. Senator Toomey is refusing to do his job because he wants Donald Trump -- a racist, sexist, misogynistic, nativist, isolationist, pathological liar who said he would date his daughter if they weren't related and won't rule out using nuclear weapons in the Middle East -- to make the next appointment to the Supreme Court. Rooting for a Supreme Court seat to be turned into a reality TV show gameshow prize really reflects poorly on Senator Toomey’s own judgement. The longer Senator Toomey puts politics before the Constitution and keeps the Supreme Court a Justice short, the more dysfunction and uncertainty it invites for businesses and citizens across the country. The polling shows overwhelming public consensus from Independent voters in particular that Judge Garland deserves a hearing and up-or-down vote this year.  By hitching his wagons to the dangerous candidacy of Trump on top of taking this hugely unpopular and unconstitutional ‘no hearings’ stance, Senator Toomey has effectively signed a political suicide pact along with a number of his fellow vulnerable Republican Senate colleagues.”

BACKGROUND:
§  PA Politics.4/28“Toomey said he would support the eventual GOP nominee”

§  Toomey Would Oppose Any Supreme Court Nominee Named By President Obama. According to the Associated Press, “‘I think the question before us now is ... should the outgoing president fundamentally change the balance of the court for the next one or two generations?’ [Pat] Toomey said. ‘I don't think that's reasonable. I think that it's more reasonable for the American people to have a more direct say in that process, which they will do through the election of the president knowing now with certainty that the next president is going to make this really important pick.’ If an Obama nominee comes to a vote, Toomey would oppose the nominee, he said, barring an unlikely Obama decision to nominate someone in Scalia's philosophical mold who would not change the court's balance. One fear, Toomey said, is that the court with a new Obama nominee might become less willing to block Obama from exceeding his legal or constitutional authority. ‘The president intends to change the balance of the court and I am not going to support him changing the balance of the court with nine months before an election, I'm not going to do that,’ Toomey said.” [Associated Press, 2/18/16]

§  A Long-Term Supreme Court Vacancy Leads to Federal Judicial Dysfunction, Uncertainty for MillionsOver 350 law professors warned in a letter to Congressional leaders: ‘A long-term vacancy jeopardizes the Supreme Court’s ability to resolve disputed questions of federal law, causing uncertainty and hampering the administration of justice across the country.’  Put another way: “Any 4-4 tied votes from the Court would result in a default upholding of decisions by regional circuit courts or state supreme courts. Some circuit courts could make federal law for the entire nation. In other areas of the law, Americans could have different constitutional rights in different parts of the country. The U.S. Supreme Court could hold some of these cases over until its next term—which starts in October—leaving millions of Americans waiting for justice.”  USA Today recognized signs of dysfunction are already apparent: “Cases large and small are ending in tie votes. The pace of decisions has slowed slightly, and fewer new cases are being granted.”