By Larry J. Schweiger
Pittburgh Current Columnist
The most substantial “going-away-present” in the history of the Commonwealth is about to be granted to retiring House Speaker Mike Turzai. He has engineered the passage of House Bill 1100 — a massive giveaway of untold tax dollars to undisclosed chemical, fertilizer, plastics, and petrochemical industries. It will prop up a failing fracking industry that has experienced steep declines in the face of chronic oversupply. (Gas prices at the wellhead fell from a high of $7.50 per thousand cubic feet to about $2.50 since the “dash to gas” started in 2005.)
Turzai’s corporate welfare bill will cost taxpayers untold billions of dollars. The Pennsylvania Department of Revenue has estimated that the tax credit in HB 1100 will cost approximately $22 million in unpaid tax dollars for each purposely undisclosed plant covered under this giveaway for the next 30 years.
While pushing HB 1100 through the House, the speaker recently announced that he will not run again and will go into the private sector. While he has not disclosed where he will get his next high-paying job, it is widely believed in Harrisburg that the lame-duck speaker will work for the gas industry when HB 1100 overrides the Governor’s proposed veto.
The billions promised by HB 1100 constitute many billions of tax dollars that will not be available for public schools or state-supported colleges and universities. Its money that will not be available for social services, for vital infrastructure, or for environmental protections that are so desperately needed in Pittsburgh and surrounding communities. Please make no mistake about it, powerful lobbying forces have been operating behind the curtain, orchestrating our state government for their benefit and our ultimate downfall.
This second round of corporate welfare started on April 30, 2019 when Turzai and other Republicans held a press event in the shadow of the Shell petrochemical plant that PA taxpayers subsidized by $1.6 billion for about 300 to 600 permanent jobs. (Turzai has received more than $1.5 million in political contributions from the fossil-fuel sector in recent years for his generosity with tax dollars.)
Highlighting his second boondoggle, Turzai announced a package of eight bills (House Bills 1100-1107) called “Energize Pennsylvania.” They would severely undermine existing inadequate environmental protections and give the industry everything that it wants by:
- Strip permitting authority away from the Department of Environmental Protection and handing critical environmental decision-making to a politically-appointed and unaccountable commission to run roughshod over communities and neighbors;
- Providing enormous tax credits of five cents per gallon frack-gas purchased for certain petrochemicals or fertilizers;
- Creating 20 Keystone Energy Enhancement Zones where fossil fuel-based businesses will be exempt from state and local taxes. They will also be granted tax credits for ten years. Local governments will pick up the tab for infrastructure to serve these projects, including polluting and noisy compressor stations, cryogenic facilities, and other gas-handling and consuming industries while exempted from paying taxes. http://www.repturzai.com/News/13889/Press-Releases/Energize-PA-Will-Create-Jobs,-Re-Use-Abandoned-Manufacturing-Sites-
For years, Turzai and the Republicans did the industry’s bidding by passing Act 13 to mandate fracking in every community and by slashing support for environmental programs by more than 40 percent from the general fund budget. The demoralized DEP staff have been reduced by nearly 30 percent at a time when the workload has never been higher. As the 2020 elections approach, lawmakers are again picking winners and losers using taxpayer’s money to subsidize their most significant political contributors to our long-term detriment.
January broke all planetary records by being the hottest on record. At a time when the climate crisis becomes more apparent, betting our future with tax subsidies on frack-gas is a big mistake. With its methane leakage rates, this gas is no better or perhaps much worse in the short-term when compared to coal. Homeowners relying on frack-gas for heat, and gas-powered electricity are in for a surprise when the gas-to-plastics plants are running, and when the pipelines to export LNG hubs ship more gas overseas where the price of gas in Europe is about eight dollars per million Btu’s compared to about $2.50 here.
The fracking boom-to-bust began in earnest in 2005 when the drilling industry moved into Pennsylvania with heavy advertising promoting clean-burning natural gas. The industry carried a big checkbook and was given a social license to operate in economically depressed communities. This happened to be the same year that Congress enacted the Cheney/Halliburton amendments exempting fracking from virtually all critical Federal environmental statutes.
In the beginning, fracking had the approval and broad acceptance of the public as hotels and restaurants were bustling, and landowners began getting royalty checks. Since then, the fracking industry has been pushing the limits of public acceptance as it handles its toxic and radioactive wastes recklessly. Health impacts from hazardous air pollution and radiation are feeding general alarms. Risks to the unborn living near fracking have been solidly documented. Other health studies are pointing to increased risks of cancer and other health threats as clusters of cancers and other health impacts are occurring.
The first crack in public support developed when the City of Pittsburgh, defying state law, voted to ban fracking. Pennsylvania Act 13 overrides all municipalities requiring every community to host fracking, whether they like it or not. While the showdown over Pittsburgh’s ban has not been tested in the courts, other municipalities learning of the growing health risks are taking steps to restrict this activity that has no place in residential communities.
More than 10,000 unconventional gas wells have been drilled in Pennsylvania with peak drilling occurring between 2010 and 2014. Water use per well averages 4.5 million gallons or 45 billion gallons of water used. Water in Pennsylvania is a public natural resource that, according to our Constitution, is “the common property to all the people.” Since much of this water is forever lost, it is an enormous “takings without compensation.” Hauling this much water from lakes and streams has damaged roads and bridges and created traffic jams and dangerous conditions on rural roads. FracTracker Alliance has also estimated at least 12,000 radioactive brine waste trucks are operating in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia, hauling radioactive wastes in violation of the law. https://www.fractracker.org/2014/04/wateruse-wv-pa/
Incumbent fracking industries are also increasingly struggling against the price-competitive insurgent clean energy industry. They will try to win this by making substantial political contributions to politicians that do their bidding. Between 2007–2017 Pennsylvania lawmakers took an estimated $68 million in contributions from the industry, and that does not include all the unrecorded favors that are not tracked. With the industry’s large purse and political hold on the legislature, there have been few prospects for rational change to advance clean energy to address the climate crisis.
There is only one earth, and our world is undergoing dramatic changes brought on by the climate crisis and other human-induced ecological disruptions. The world’s top scientists studying these threats and the forces behind them have been warning us for decades to end the use of fossil fuels or face catastrophic consequences. Pennsylvania Republicans and far too many Democrats under the influence of corporate money are willfully blind to the truth.
House Bill 1100 passed the House by 157-35, and by a vote of 39-11 in the Senate and after unprecedented lobbying. If two-thirds of the General Assembly votes to override the Governor’s veto, this bad bill will become law and tie Pennsylvania’s economy to the fracking industry for a generation. Tell your House and Senate members to uphold a Governor’s Veto by voting NO on a veto override. Send your note now. https://pennfuture.salsalabs.org/upholdveto-hb1100?