Advocacy groups say the new state budget is a huge win for the environment making historic investments in Pennsylvania’s waterways and green spaces.
But the budget does not specifically fund actions to fight 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 an ongoing legal challenge.
What is clear is that water and conservation programs are getting significant new funding. The $45 billion budget allocates $640 million to these 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 transformational generational investment in conservation,” said Ezra Thrush, senior director of government affairs at PennFuture.
Environmental agencies receive increases from the state’s general fund, primarily to support staffing. The Department of Conservation and Natural Resources is getting a $12.9 million boost, an increase of more than 9% from last fiscal year. The Ministry of Environmental Protection gets an increase of $13.9 million, or just over 8% over the previous year.
Gov. Tom Wolf asked for a $5 million increase so the DEP could hire 40 new staff in his budget proposal. Proponents have noted that agency funding is still lower than it was in the early 2000s.
The 2022-2023 fiscal year budget renews a popular program that was called Growing Greener. This initiative has funded farmland preservation projects, open space conservation, maintenance of state parks, cleanup of abandoned mines, restoration of watersheds, construction of recreational trails and installation of systems. new and improved water and sewer.
The $100 million for the new State Parks and Outdoor Recreation program comes from the U.S. Federal Bailout Act and will pay to create three new state parks and address a backlog of water needs. maintenance in existing parks. The locations of these new parks have not been chosen.
The budget also establishes a Clean Streams Fund, which receives $220 million in ARPA money. The fund will be used to help farmers with conservation practices and reduce runoff. It can also be used to improve watersheds and reduce pollution flowing into the Chesapeake Bay.
Thrush said while there’s still a gap in what’s needed to completely clean up the Commonwealth’s waterways, the money will help the state achieve its goals in the Chesapeake Bay. Other states in the Bay watershed have sued Pennsylvania for failing to meet pollution reduction targets, and the Federal Environmental Protection Agency recently beefed 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 revenues.
“I don’t mean to look a gift horse in the mouth here, but I think it made the math a lot easier,” Parzen said.
She added that it is heartening to see that conservation is a bipartisan decision.
“You can fight climate change all day, but at the end of the day, when they had money on the table that they needed to spend, Republicans and Democrats agreed to spend it on these environmental priorities and conservation,” Parzen said. .
Thrush said that while the budget does not set emissions reduction targets or fund programs with specific climate goals, there is a link between conservation and climate change. He said preserving green spaces and planting buffers along waterways can help reduce emissions by allowing plants to absorb and store carbon dioxide.
Advocate also welcomed the $125 million budget investment in the Whole Home Repairs program, which will help low-income people weatherproof their homes. Weatherization can make a home more efficient, reducing heating and electricity bills while reducing emissions. It can also make homes more resilient to the extreme weather conditions that come with climate change.
Parzen said she believed investments in the environment and energy efficiency in the budget would address the symptoms of larger problems, but left the general problem of climate change unaddressed.
The Republican-controlled legislature voted against Wolf’s plan to enter the state into RGGI but failed to secure the two-thirds majority needed to stop the program.
GOP leaders are now fighting the settlement in court.
A Commonwealth Court judge granted preliminary injunctions in the GOP case and another brought by coal and power groups. The orders suspend enforcement of the settlement until a trial can take place this fall.
DEP is appealing the suspension to the state Supreme Court. The court has not yet set a hearing date in this case.
If the suspension remains in effect, Pennsylvania will not 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 earn about $200 million this year if it joined the program earlier this 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 from RGGI auctions to invest in clean energy, energy efficiency, and other measures to benefit state residents.
This story is produced in partnership with StateImpact Pennsylvania, a collaboration between WESA, The Allegheny Front, WITF and WHYY.