Patrick McDonnell, DEP Sec.
Yesterday the Pennsylvania State Senate Environmental Resources and Energy Committee held a hearing on the reconfirmation of Dept. of Environmental Protection (DEP) Secretary Pat McDonnell. After the hearing the members of the committee voted 8 to 2 to recommend reconfirming McDonnell. During the hearing there were some fireworks between committee chairman Sen. Gene Yaw and committee member Andy “Tony Soprano” Dinniman.
We have to claim some degree of ambivalence in the reappointment of McDonnell. He’s worked in government (most of it at the DEP) for the past 22 years–a swamp dweller. He’s pushing a horrible so-called Climate Action Plan from Gov. Tom Wolf. Terrible plan. And he’s trying to raise Marcellus Shale permit fees for drillers by 250%. That’s the case against (and it’s a strong case).
On the other hand, McDonnell is not cowering before the likes of Sen. Dinniman who wants to turn off all of the Mariner East pipelines and stop construction of any new portions of the ME pipeline projects. And McDonnell has not actually blocked the Marcellus industry in the state. If anything, he’s helped it.
The fact that Dinniman and a small group of Philly-area legislators have the long knives out for McDonnell (see Gang of Five PA Senators Pull Out the Long Knives for DEP Sec.) kind of tips the scale back in favor of reconfirming McDonnell. But only by a little. Ambivalent is about the best word that describes how we feel.
As the hearing yesterday opened, McDonnell gave the following prepared remarks:
Chairman Yaw, Chairman Yudichak, and members of the Committee, thank you for the opportunity to be here today. I am honored to be appointed again by Governor Tom Wolf to serve as the Secretary of the Department of Environmental Protection.
I began my career at DEP in 1997 as a Pennsylvania Management Intern. Over the last 22 years, I have moved through the ranks at DEP under the leadership of five different governors, while remaining steadfast in my commitment to protecting the environment, our natural resources, and the health of all Pennsylvanians.
Throughout every level I worked at, I have worked beside the professionals at DEP to solve some of the most pressing environmental issues we have faced in this state over the last two decades.
We have turned environmental problems like acid rain, mine drainage, abandoned mines, and brownfields into success stories.
I have also seen other environmental problems persist, like abandoned oil and gas wells, climate change, and nutrient pollution into Pennsylvania’s waterways.
In 1997, the agency could not have foreseen that our state would become the second largest energy exporter in the country through the technological advancement of unconventional well drilling.
Through economic boom and bust, and fluctuating state budgets, DEP’s responsibilities have steadily grown.
We have managed the increased responsibilities of the shale revolution and absorbed other necessary environmental mandates from EPA, like addressing stormwater and removing nutrients from our waterways.
In the three years since I assumed the role of Acting Secretary, I have met with all of you, listened to your concerns, worked together to solve problems, and have led the Department through a sea change in how we operate.
Through my actions and those of the men and women that work at DEP, there has been a landscape-level change throughout our agency.
DEP staff have improved our engagement with communities to ensure that they are aware of developments in their area.
We are holding public meetings and public hearings in the communities that will be affected and making information available on our website.
DEP is working to ensure that all Pennsylvanians, from all walks of life, have the opportunity to be involved in the decisions that affect where they live and work.
We have also overhauled the inspection process, utilizing electronic tools like tablet computers to allow our inspectors to spend more time in the field, enabling us to better protect our air, water, and land.
At the end of the day, the number one goal of the Department of Environmental Protection is to protect Pennsylvania’s air, land, and water from pollution and to provide for the health of citizens through a cleaner environment.
We are working to accomplish that in many ways, across the many varied programs at DEP.
Through commonsense changes, we have dramatically reduced air pollution from existing coal-fired power plants, improving air quality across the state.
We have developed groundbreaking scientific analysis techniques to be able to better assess our rivers and streams to make sure that they are clean and meeting the needs of the people.
We are continuing our monitoring and control of the mosquitoes that can carry West Nile Virus, ensuring that summertime pests do not become a health crisis. And we have taken steps to make sure there is adequate oversight of drinking water, one of our most important roles.
We have held operators accountable that have not complied with DEP permit conditions and regulations.
DEP’s unprecedented oversight has led to not just penalties, but other actions to ensure that Pennsylvanians are not paying the price for pollution.
We are achieving our mission and showing that environmental protection and economic development can go hand in hand.
New unfunded federal requirements have sometimes brought controversy but also opportunity. DEP has been actively engaging with county and municipal governments to reduce water pollution in ways that best make sense for their communities.
We recognize this is a significant challenge for local governments and DEP is committed to remaining flexible and creative in finding solutions to the federal requirements.
There is no one-size-fits-all solution to flood protection, pollution reduction, and stormwater management, but we are working diligently to identify solutions that are right for our communities.
On a larger scale, we are also grappling with how to address climate change, not just what role Pennsylvania can have in reducing the greenhouse gas emissions that cause it, but also what must be done to protect Pennsylvania communities from the unavoidable effects of it.
DEP just finalized and released our 2018 Climate Action Plan, which outlines actions that can be taken by communities, businesses, and the legislature to mitigate carbon emissions and help communities and businesses adapt to a changing climate.
The recommendations in the action plan can play a major role in reaching the goal of reducing emissions by 26 percent by 2025 and will not only reduce the threat of climate change but put Pennsylvania businesses and communities a step ahead in a 21st century economy.
The challenges we face are great, there is no question about that. I know that DEP and the General Assembly can continue to work together to address them.
Finally, I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge the tremendous work of DEP staff. They are a passionate, professional, and diligent workforce, committed to protecting Pennsylvania’s air, land, and water, and delivering consistent service to the regulated communities.
The improvements that DEP has accomplished over the past three years are a reflection of their dedication and it is a privilege to serve alongside them. (1)
Following the hearing and the vote to recommend, Chairman Yaw issued this press release:
State Sen. Gene Yaw (R-23), Chairman of the Senate Environmental Resources and Energy Committee, today released the following statement on the Committee’s vote to approve Patrick McDonnell, Governor Tom Wolf’s nominee to serve as Secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP). McDonnell’s nomination was advanced by the committee by a vote of 8 to 2.
“I have worked well with Pat over the past several years on a number of issues, as well as collaboratively on the state’s Chesapeake Bay Commission. He has served honorably in his role since first being confirmed, and I expect he will continue to be a steady hand at the Department.”
Prior to being named Secretary, McDonnell served as DEP’s director of policy. In addition, he ran the State Energy Office and was charged with coordination of renewable energy and energy efficiency issues. McDonnell also served several years as executive policy manager for former Commissioner Pamela A. Witmer of the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission, focusing on electric, natural gas, and water issues, as well as cybersecurity and the impact of environmental regulation on energy markets.
McDonnell’s nomination now goes to the full Senate for consideration.
The Senate Environmental Resources and Energy Committee has jurisdiction over the Department. (2)
The Pennsylvania Capital-Star captures some of the sparks that flew between Yaw and Dinniman at the hearing when Dinniman tried to badger McDonnell about the Mariner East pipeline projects:
A state Senate committee voted Wednesday to endorse Gov. Tom Wolf’s pick to head the Department of Environmental Protection, despite concerns from some senators over a controversial pipeline project.
The Environmental Resources & Energy Committee advanced Secretary Patrick McDonnell’s nomination to the full Senate, over the objections of Sens. Andrew Dinniman, D-Chester, and Daylin Leach, D-Montgomery.
McDonnell was appointed head of the DEP in 2016 and was nominated by Wolf this year to serve a second term. He was originally scheduled to appear before the committee last week, but his hearing was postponed.
Committee Chairman Gene Yaw, R-Lycoming, said the delay had nothing to do with an April letter — signed by Leach, Dinniman, and three of their Senate colleagues — asking him to put McDonnell’s reconfirmation on hold while county and state officials investigate the Mariner East II Pipeline project.
The senators argued that an ongoing, joint investigation by state Attorney General Josh Shapiro’s office and the Chester County district attorney “specifically cites state regulators” including the DEP, which has granted permits for the project and fined the pipeline’s owners for non-compliance with state regulations.
Their letter also included 10 questions for McDonnell to answer at his eventual reconfirmation hearing.
Among other matters, Dinniman tried to ask McDonnell to verify the accuracy of datasets that the DEP used to make permitting decisions. Dinniman also asked the secretary to respond to allegations, first reported in The Guardian, that McDonnell asked his staff to cut short the review process of the pipeline’s permit application.
But McDonnell deflected those inquiries on Wednesday, saying he could not comment on matters related to an ongoing investigation.
Dinniman’s line of questioning was ultimately cut short by his Senate colleagues after it became clear that McDonnell could not provide answers.
“You are interfering with criminal investigation,” Yaw told Dinniman. “Ask the attorney general [these questions] instead.”
Dinniman said he was obligated to scrutinize McDonnell’s dealings with the Mariner East project on behalf of his Chester County constituents, who he says live in fear of explosions and other pipeline-related disasters.
“We’re expected to vote on a confirmation, yet we can’t ask any questions,” Dinniman said. He later added, “What constituents see is that they won’t get answers from this Senate committee.”
Leach shared Dinniman’s frustration, and said he could not vote to confirm McDonnell until the joint investigation into the Mariner East pipeline cleared the DEP of any impropriety.
Dinniman and Leach said Wolf should have withdrawn McDonnell’s nomination, allowing him to serve as acting secretary, to give the committee more time to rule on his reconfirmation.
“We shouldn’t be forced into a position where we make a decision without the information we need,” Leach said. “It’s like being a jury in a trial without hearing any of the evidence.”
In a statement Wednesday, Wolf spokesperson J.J. Abbott called McDonnell a “fair regulator” who “has worked diligently to implement the governor’s environmental agenda.”
He also brushed aside the opinion, held by Leach, Dinniman, and others, that McDonnell’s nomination should be delayed until the Mariner East investigation is complete.
“The strong bipartisan majority on the committee that recommended McDonnell’s confirmation disagree and we do as well,” Abbott said. (3)
We expect the full Senate will vote to reconfirm once they are back in session in June.
(1) PA Environment Digest Blog (May 8, 2019) – DEP Secretary McDonnell’s Statement Before Senate Environmental Committee
(2) Pennsylvania Senator Gene Yaw (May 8, 2019) – Senate Committee Advances McDonnell Nomination
(3) Pennsylvania Capital-Star (May 8, 2019) – ‘We can’t ask any questions:’ Environmental official gets OK from Senate committee over pipeline objections
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