Rural Pennsylvania's chances to ever have a strong economy again are severely at risk. Gov. Tom Wolf filled the leadership posts of two agencies — the Department of Environmental Protection and the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources — with alumni from the radical environmental group, PennFuture. Further, the very structure of how the DEP hands down penalties and creates regulations is hurting our economy and needs to be reformed.
This did not happen overnight. It started more than a decade ago when former Gov. Ed Rendell's picks to run these agencies — John Hanger (who founded PennFuture), Katie McGinty and John Quigley, all of whom returned under Gov. Wolf — abandoned the core mission of government to pursue an activist environmental agenda.
Instead of making sure Pennsylvanians had a clear understanding of environmental rules, the DEP and DCNR became distribution centers for pork-barrel projects for renewable energy (some of which went to PennFuture).
Now, under the Wolf administration, the cornerstone industries of rural Pennsylvania — coal, oil, gas, timber and agriculture — are seeing a tidal wave of regulations from these same agencies. To cite one example, DEP's oil and gas advisory board recommended the agency not move forward with an extremely costly and unnecessary package of regulations. But the DEP did so anyway. The Environmental Quality Board, which has a few token seats for the Legislature and private sector but is essentially a stacked deck for the administration, adopted the regulations in February.
As a result, the oil patch of Northwest Pennsylvania is on life support. Wells are ceasing production and companies that once employed thousands of rural Pennsylvanians are down to skeleton crews.
What activity is left is under constant threat of punitive fines levied for minor infractions or paperwork violations. When it comes to the DEP, businesses and job creators are presumed guilty until they're found innocent.
On a recent conference call with potential investors, DEP Secretary John Quigley was extremely dismissive of the job creation that results from oil and gas development. He has repeatedly touted the purported economic opportunities available to wind and solar — even though these energy sources take huge tracts of farm and forest land out of production in perpetuity.
In rural Pennsylvania, where jobs and opportunities are becoming increasingly scarce due to the regulatory climate, heroin and drug abuse are rampant as people lose their jobs — and their hope. There is no reason, given the state's tremendous natural resources, that any family in Pennsylvania should be struggling. But environmental groups, most of them from suburban Philadelphia, want to leave rural Pennsylvania behind.
Now that these groups' former leaders are in charge of government agencies, that sort of destructive, hateful thinking is shaping Gov. Wolf's tax and regulatory policy. We can't afford it — and we shouldn't put up with it anymore.
(Peterson, a Republican, represented Pennsylvania's 5th Congressional District from 1997 to 2009. He lives in Pleasantville, Venango County)