House committee questions need to incentivize natural gas

HARRISBURG, March 21 The House Democratic Policy Committee conducted a public hearing today to question if Pennsylvania should continue to incentivize natural gas.

State Rep. Greg Vitali, D-Delaware, who organized the meeting, said Pennsylvania currently incentivizes the production and use of natural gas through tax credits, grants and loans.

“There is currently disagreement among those who want to combat climate change as to the role natural gas should play, and whether incentives for its production and demand are necessary,” Vitali said.  

Vitali also noted that every session, legislation is introduced to provide even more incentives for the natural gas industry. His goal for this hearing was to examine whether these incentives make sense for climate change and the health of Pennsylvania residents.

Rob Altenburg, director of the PennFuture Energy Center, said that last year his organization released a report identifying over $3.2 billion in fossil fuel subsidies provided by Pennsylvania during fiscal year 2012-13.

He questioned whether the industry requires all of these incentives.

“As time and technology changes, subsidies that were once justified may no longer make sense,” Altenburg said. “Regular consideration of existing subsidies is needed to ensure we are spending money wisely and working towards our goals.”

Mark Szybist, senior program advocate, energy and transportation, Natural Resources Defense Council, noted that natural gas power plants are being built in Pennsylvania regardless of incentives.

“What Pennsylvania should incentivize is energy efficiency – for instance, by improving its building codes and removing the arbitrary limits on efficiency in Act 129 – and zero-emitting renewable energy from the wind and the sun,” Szybist said.

Don Brown, scholar in residence at Widener University Commonwealth Law School, said Pennsylvania needs to move away from all fossil fuels as quickly as possible.

“Pennsylvania should be carbon neutral as quickly as possible, but at least by 2040,” Brown said. “We can only achieve that goal by transitioning from fossil fuels to renewables.”

Robert Howarth, the David R. Atkinson professor of ecology and environmental biology at Cornell University, told the committee that given the fugitive methane emission problems of natural gas, it should not be used as a bridge fuel for climate change reduction purposes.

“Given the role of methane in global warming, and the large emissions of unburned methane to the atmosphere as shale gas is developed, I strongly recommend that society move as quickly as possible away from using shale gas as fuel,” Howarth said.

Michael Griffin, associated research professor of engineering and public policy, Carnegie Mellon University, said that some health benefits could be achieved by incentivizing in the use of natural gas is densely populated urban areas.

“A program targeted at delivery trucks, garbage trucks, and school buses vehicles to aid in switching from diesel to natural gas will likely have monetized health impacts larger than the associated economic benefits,” Griffin said.

Others who testified at the hearing include:

  • Dave Althoff Jr., manager, Office of Pollution Prevention and Energy Assistance, state Department of Environmental Protection

  • Denise Brinley, special assistant to the secretary, Strategic Industry Initiatives, state Department of Community and Economic Development

  • Tom Peterson, president and CEO, Center for Climate Strategies

Vitali concluded the hearing by stating that he understands the need for natural gas in Pennsylvania’s energy portfolio but he believes state incentives should be directed at renewable energy and conservation.