Environmentalists hail latest Pennsylvania budget, even as a key climate program is on hold
Advocacy groups say the new state budget is a huge win for the environment that makes historic investments in Pennsylvania’s waterways and green spaces.
But the budget does not specifically fund actions to address climate change or reduce greenhouse gas emissions. And the fate of the Wolf Administration’s main climate program – entry into the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative – is uncertain due to a pending court challenge.
What is clear is that water and conservation programs are getting significant new money. The $45 billion budget gives $640 million to such programs, including more than $300 million to upgrade stormwater and sewer systems and $100 million to improve state parks and forests.
“This is a truly transformative, generational investment in conservation,” said Ezra Thrush, senior director of government affairs at PennFuture.
Environmental agencies are getting raises from the state’s general fund, mainly to support staffing. The Department of Conservation and Natural Resources is getting a $12.9 million boost, a more than 9% raise from the last fiscal year. The Department of Environmental Protection is getting an increase of $13.9 million, or just over 8% from the previous year.
Gov. Tom Wolf asked for a $5 million increase for DEP to hire 40 new staff in his budget proposal. Advocates noted agency funding is still below where it was in the early 2000s.
The budget for the 2022-23 fiscal year renews a popular program that had been called Growing Greener. That initiative funded farmland-preservation projects, open space conservation, state parks maintenance, abandoned mineland cleanup, watershed restoration, building recreational trails, and installing new and upgraded water and sewer systems.
The $100 million going to the new State Parks and Outdoor Recreation Program comes from the federal American Rescue Plan Act, and will pay to create three new state parks and to address a backlog of maintenance needs in existing parks. The locations for those new parks haven’t been chosen.
The budget also establishes a Clean Streams Fund, which is getting $220 million in ARPA money. The fund will go to help farmers with conservation practices and to reduce runoff. It can also be used to improve watersheds and lessen pollution flowing to the Chesapeake Bay.
Thrush said while there’s still a gap in what’s needed to fully clean the commonwealth’s waterways, the money will help the state with its Chesapeake Bay goals. Other states in the bay watershed have sued Pennsylvania for failing to meet pollution reduction targets and the federal Environmental Protection Agency recently stepped up enforcement in the state.
Molly Parzen, executive director of Conservation Voters of Pennsylvania, said this year’s increases were made more palatable to lawmakers by the availability of ARPA funds and larger-than-expected state tax revenue.
“I don’t want to look a gift horse in the mouth here, but I do think it made the calculus a lot easier,” Parzen said.
She added it’s heartening to see that conservation is a bipartisan decision.
“You can fight about climate change all day long, but at the end of the day when they had money on the table that they had to spend, both the Republicans and Democrats agreed to spend it on these environmental and conservation priorities,” Parzen said.
Thrush said that while the budget does not set emission reduction goals or fund programs with specific climate goals, there is a connection between conservation and climate change. He said preserving green spaces and planting buffers along streams can help reduce emissions by allowing plants to absorb and store carbon dioxide.
Advocate also praised the budget’s investment of $125 million in the Whole Home Repairs Program, which will help lower-income people weatherize their homes. Weatherization can make a home more efficient, reducing heating and electric bills while lowering emissions. It can also make homes more resilient to extreme weather that accompanies climate change.
Parzen said she thinks the environmental and energy efficiency investments in the budget will treat symptoms of larger problems, but leaves the umbrella problem of climate change unaddressed.
The Republican-controlled legislature has voted against Wolf’s plan to enter the state in RGGI but failed to get a two-thirds majority needed to stop the program.
GOP leaders are now fighting the regulation in court.
A Commonwealth Court judge granted preliminary injunctions in the GOP’s case and another brought by coal and power plant groups. The orders pause enforcement of the regulation until a trial can be heard this fall.
The DEP is appealing the stay to the state Supreme Court. The court has not yet set a hearing date in the matter.
If the stay remains in effect, Pennsylvania won’t be able to participate in the September RGGI auction, the process by which power plants buy allowances to cover their emissions. The state expected to make about $200 million this year if it had joined the program at the start of the year.
RGGI states include Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Virginia.
States can use the money raised at RGGI auction to invest in clean energy, energy efficiency, and other measures to benefit people in the state.
This story is produced in partnership with StateImpact Pennsylvania, a collaboration among WESA, The Allegheny Front, WITF and WHYY.
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