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Partisan split on energy, environment makes compromise unlikely

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(The Center Square) — As energy and environmental issues remain central in Pennsylvania for 2024, the partisan divide in the General Assembly means compromise on major issues will be rare.

It’s not a new dynamic in the legislature and it’s here to stay for now.

Republicans control the Senate’s Environmental Resources & Energy Committee while Democrats lead it in the House. The GOP perspective focuses on energy production and reliability, while the Democratic view casts an eye toward climate change, joining RGGI, and enforcing environmental rules and regulations.

“Safe and responsible energy development and grid reliability will remain the key focus of the Environmental Resources and Energy Committee in 2024,” Sen. Gene Yaw, R-Williamsport, said. “Affordable, reliable energy is a must for a vibrant, growing commonwealth. As we have seen during recent years, the price of energy directly impacts all aspects of our lives and our economy.”

As the committee chairman, Yaw said he wants to shield Pennsylvanians against unreasonable environmental regulations that drive up costs and create uncertainty.

Republicans also plan to focus on hydrogen hubs and carbon capture, which many have lined up behind already.

“Thanks to our robust energy industry and extensive geological formations, Pennsylvania is uniquely qualified to develop a vast (carbon capture, utilization, and storage) network that will attract investment and development and economic opportunity for decades to come,” Yaw said. “It’s a pragmatic solution to a problem that we all want to solve – reducing our carbon emissions without crippling the reliability of our existing power grid.”

House Democratic leadership, meanwhile, is more skeptical of the hydrogen push.

“Making sure hydrogen hubs are done correctly is an important thing in dealing with climate change,” Rep. Greg Vitali, D-Havertown, said. “Production of hydrogen can be done the right way — which provides a tool in dealing with climate change — or it can be done the wrong way, which would simply perpetuate the use of natural gas.”

Vitali, chairman of the House committee, has proposed legislation to restrict hydrogen tax credits to hard-to-electrify sectors that sequester carbon emissions.

The split between a hydrogen-maximizing approach and a hydrogen-as-needed approach exemplifies the broader Republican-Democratic divide.

“Climate change is the issue of our time and Pennsylvania is a huge greenhouse gas producer,” Vitali said. “Climate really needs to be front and center.”

That means getting Pennsylvania into RGGI and “beating back legislative attempts to derail it,” he said.

Enforcing existing rules, too, is a priority for Vitali. For 2024, that means getting more funding to the Department of Environmental Protection.

“One thing very important to me is staffing levels at the DEP,” Vitali said. “That is an agency that across the board is woefully underfunded so that they really can’t carry out their mission.”

The agency’s staffing levels, he said, are about 30% lower than two decades ago, which means inspectors aren’t around to enforce laws.

“The drilling industry just flaunts the rules and regulations of Pennsylvania with regard to environmental protection and there seems to be an inability to hold them in check,” Vitali said.

The political differences between the parties mean that a bill that passes through one chamber is dead on arrival in another, either by opposition or by apathy. A bill to restrict PFAS chemicals from use in firefighting foam sponsored by Yaw, for example, passed the Senate in March 36-14, but has yet to be taken up in the House Veterans Affairs and Emergency Preparedness Committee since then.

Likewise, a Vitali-sponsored bill for a two-year moratorium on permits for cryptocurrency mining narrowly passed the House in December and awaits action in the Senate, though it’s unlikely to pass.

Partisan differences in a narrowly divided legislature isn’t the only way to kill a bill, either. Intraparty divides matter, too.

With hydrogen hubs, the scale of taxpayer subsidies going to them has created right-wing opposition, while pro-labor Democrats have supported the hubs against the wishes of environmentalists.

“Pennsylvania has one of the most diverse energy portfolios in the United States,” Yaw said. “There is no question we can capitalize on our state’s energy richness, but first we must stop apologizing for it. I look forward to continuing to put forth common-sense, environmentally responsible energy policy in 2024 that recognizes and champions Pennsylvania as an energy producer.”

Vitali may agree with supporting common-sense, environmentally responsible energy policy (though he would define it very differently from Yaw), but doing so requires action from outside the General Assembly.

“Big things in Harrisburg are done because it’s become a priority of our governor,” Vitali said. “I think Gov. Shapiro has to provide leadership here.”

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