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Pennsylvania legislators debate energy measures

Laura Legere | Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

HARRISBURG — With only weeks left in the current legislative session, the majority and minority chairs of the state Senate and House environmental resources and energy committees were more certain Wednesday about which bills they hope will pass the General Assembly this year than the ones they actually expect to pass.

“Everybody thinks their bills are the most important, and we have a limited amount of time to do those things,” said Sen. Gene Yaw, R-Lycoming, the majority chairman of his chamber’s committee. “I’m really not sure what’s going to happen.”

The leaders of the key energy-related committees spoke about their expectations for the present and next legislative sessions during a policy conference sponsored by the Pennsylvania Environmental Council at the Harrisburg Hilton.

Each of the elected officials — Mr. Yaw; Sen. John Yudichak, D-Luzerne; Rep. Ron Miller, R-York; and Rep. Greg Vitali, D-Delaware — named bills they would like to see pass during the next few weeks, but they offered few guesses about which ones are likeliest to advance before the election.

“We are in the silly season with trading bills, and we’ll just have to see how things play out in the next couple weeks,” said Mr. Miller, the chairman of the House committee. “I think there is great potential for us to move some significant pieces of legislation.”

Mr. Yaw highlighted three bills he sponsored to increase landowner protections in oil and gas contracts. The bills, which passed the Senate but have not yet passed the House, would provide property owners with access to more information about how their oil and gas royalties are calculated; protect property owners from retaliation by companies if they question those royalty calculations; and require that lease satisfaction documents are filed in recorder of deeds offices when a lease contract expires.

“We still have issues in our area concerning post-production costs and royalties,” Mr. Yaw said.

After the panel, he said a broader bill that would require companies to pay the state’s guaranteed minimum one-eighth royalty on natural gas without subtracting additional post-production costs appeared less likely to advance.

That proposal, House Bill 1684, has attracted significant attention from landowners, but it raises constitutional concerns about changing the terms of current lease contracts, he said.

Mr. Miller described a bill to establish water well construction standards as a priority that is “very near and dear to me.” The bill passed the House in June.

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Private water wells in Pennsylvania are largely unregulated. The natural gas industry, environmental regulators and other groups would like to see the commonwealth adopt standards similar to those established in nearly every other state.

The subject is not popular among landowners, and Mr. Yaw expressed doubt about the water well bill’s path forward.

“Pennsylvanians have a feeling that they have a right to drink bad water,” he said.

The legislators predicted a few measures they expect to work on after the election — depending on its outcome — including a severance tax on natural gas.

“I do think that with a new session, with a new governor, you are going to see a severance tax in Pennsylvania,” said Mr. Yudichak, the Democratic minority chairman of the Senate committee. Gov. Tom Corbett, a Republican, is currently facing off against Democrat Tom Wolf for the governor’s job.

Mr. Vitali, the minority chairman of the House committee who described his perspective as that of a “suburban passionate environmentalist,” read his wish list of bills if the election rearranges political power in the capitol.

It began with an increase in the amount of electricity companies must obtain from renewable sources.

All of the legislators expect more discussion about the effects of a federal proposal to reduce carbon emissions from power plants, which would require a 32 percent reduction of carbon pollution from Pennsylvania power plants by 2030 from 2012 levels.

The plan raises questions about Pennsylvania’s energy mix; the role of coal; and the integrity of the electric grid and energy costs, among other issues, they said. But most citizens have not yet entered the debate about the proposal.

“My average constituent doesn’t weigh in on an issue like this until they start seeing, ‘does it have an effect on my bottom line, on my pocket book?'” Mr. Miller said.

 

Laura Legere: llegere@post-gazette.com.

 

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