Gov. Tom Wolf's address to Pennsylvania's General Assembly on Feb. 8 will mark the official opening of negotiations on the commonwealth's 2022-23 fiscal year budget. Regrettably, this annual budget has shortchanged the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection for many years. With a rosy revenue picture for the upcoming fiscal year, the governor and the General Assembly should adopt a budget that fully funds the DEP.
The best measure of the DEP's strength over time is its number of filled positions, i.e., the number of people paid to come to work each day. In 2003, the DEP had 3,311 filled positions. This past December it was down to 2,323 filled positions. That's about a 30% reduction in staff over the last 18 years. This percent staff reduction is about double that of all commonwealth agencies over the same period. Reduced staffing has compromised the department's ability to regulate oil and gas development, monitor and reduce air and water pollution and protect the Chesapeake Bay.
Pennsylvania has the money to fully fund DEP. According to the commonwealth's Independent Fiscal Office, Pennsylvania's General Fund revenue surplus for fiscal year 2021-22 is projected to be over $1.6 billion - the second largest in a decade.
Oil and Gas Program
The DEP's Oil and Gas Program has oversight over the almost 80,000 Pennsylvania oil and gas wells now in production. In 2015, this program had 226 filled positions. In December it was down to about 181. Last year the DEP's Oil and Gas Program conducted the fewest number of inspections of oil and gas operations since 2015.
The Oil and Gas Program has responsibility for plugging the estimated 200,000 orphaned or abandoned oil and gas wells in Pennsylvania. These wells can leak methane (a powerful greenhouse gas) and contaminate ground and surface water. Due to limited resources, DEP plugged only about 10 wells last year.
DEP is expecting $25 million this year from the Federal INVEST program which could fund the plugging of an additional 500 orphaned or abandoned oil and gas wells. DEP needs more personnel to put out contracts for the plugging of these wells and to oversee the work performed.
Air Quality Program
In 2005, the DEP's Air Quality Program had 349 filled positions. In December, it was down to 236 - a reduction of over 32%. A 2018 DEP Air Program report requesting additional staffing indicated that "… fewer Department staff to conduct inspections, respond to complaints, and pursue enforcement actions will result in less oversight of regulated industry [and] … reduced protection of the environment and public health."
In November 2020 and again in December 2021, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issued a "Finding of Failure" to DEP's Air Quality Program for not submitting a required plan to reduce VOC emissions from oil and gas operations. The commonwealth now faces federal sanctions.
Clean Water Program
In 2007 the DEP's Clean Water Program had 778 filed positions. In December it was down to 647 - about a 17% reduction in staff. This January DEP released a draft report showing one-third of Pennsylvania's streams - 27,886 miles - have impaired water quality making them unsafe for aquatic life, recreation, fish consumption or water supply. That's a 2,418 increase in impaired stream miles since its 2020 report.
About half of the land area of Pennsylvania drains into the Chesapeake Bay. Pennsylvania's poor progress in reducing its agricultural runoff threatens the health and recovery of the bay. In 2019 Pennsylvania's Phase 3 Chesapeake Bay Watershed Implementation Plan identified a $324 million annual funding gap between what is needed to implement its pollution reduction plan versus what is available. According to a 2021 report by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, "Pennsylvania remains far off track" in meeting its pollution reduction obligations.
The commonwealth's annual budget has shortchanged the DEP for years. Negotiations between the governor and legislature on this year's budget are just beginning. Now is the time to influence the process. Concerned citizens should tell Gov. Wolf and their state representatives and senators that the DEP needs more funding.
State Rep. Greg Vitali, D-166, represents portions of Delaware and Montgomery counties. He is the Democratic chairman of the House Environmental Resource and Energy Committee. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article originally appeared on Erie Times-News: Pennsylvania must fully fund environmental protection in 2022-23 budget