Natural gas use, tax pushed by Pennsylvania lawmakers
HARRISBURG -- Pennsylvania could become the first to fuel its state vehicle fleet with natural gas, but it remains the last major gas-producing state with massive reserves that doesn't levy an extraction tax, lawmakers and environmentalists said Tuesday.
State House Republicans want to lead the way by converting the fleet and building natural-gas stations at every other stop along the turnpike. It will help create demand as companies drill a mile deep into the Marcellus shale formation, said House GOP Policy Chairman Stan Saylor of York County.
But the industry needs to pay up to pump more into environmental protection programs, activists said at a Capitol rally.
"For three years, the Marcellus shale industry has gone untaxed in Pennsylvania," said Rep. Camille "Bud" George, D-Clearfield County, who chairs an environmental oversight panel. George told those rallying it's a benefit "not afforded in any other major gas-producing state."
Members of the Pennsylvania Environmental Council said the Legislature needs to approve the tax this fall, using a portion of the money for environmental programs such as Growing Greener. Don Welsh, the council's president and CEO, said the program, which supports environmental initiatives statewide, is running out of money and could use an infusion of cash from the gas industry.
"A Marcellus shale production tax is a fair way to raise the funds needed," Welsh said in a statement.
At the rally, a coalition of environmental groups pushed for stricter regulation of the industry, with some advocating a moratorium. Gathered on the Rotunda steps, some activists carried signs saying, "What 'da frack?" and "Water Is Life."
Much of the concern among environmentalists has centered on the drilling practice known as "fracking," in which drillers shoot water, sand and chemicals into the shale to fracture it and free the gas. Some worry that water will pollute streams or drinking water.
A giant screw atop a truck was parked in front of the Capitol to symbolically represent how activist Gene Stilp, a candidate for the state House, views the natural gas industry's impact on Pennsylvania.
Drilling "is not necessarily a bad thing," said Khara Jacobson, 33, an environmental science student at Harrisburg Area Community College who attended the rally. "They're just not doing it properly," she contended. "And there are a lot of issues with frack water."
The state House and Senate leadership agreed before recessing in July to approve a tax by Oct. 1. But only three weeks remain in the session, and lawmakers say there are numerous details to resolve. There's no outward sign that the tax proposal is nearing final form, and today is considered a "token" session day in the House when no votes will be taken.
The move to natural gas-powered state vehicles is a major component of a $55 million Republican plan called "Marcellus Works" that lawmakers debuted at a Capitol news conference.
Saylor said the plan is not a House GOP statement against a severance tax. Each member will decide whether to support a tax if it comes to a vote, he said.
Saylor said he would start by converting the state's 16,000-vehicle fleet to natural gas vehicles as older vehicles are replaced. It costs about $10,000 to convert a car to a natural gas fuel supply -- about the same differential for a new natural gas-powered vehicle, GOP staffers said. Saylor said natural gas would cost about $1 per gallon less than gasoline.
"You want to be 'green,' absolutely," said Doug Holmes, transportation director at Penn State University. But if a Penn State employee drives to another campus in a university-owned car, "they have to have enough fuel to get back and not spend hours looking for a place to refuel," he said.