G.T. Thompson discusses the environment
Editor’s note: Cong. Glenn Thompson (Rep.-5th District) granted a one-on-one interview with Voices Managing Editor Suzan Erem to discuss the environment. They spent more than an hour at the congressman’s office in Bellefonte. Ellipses below indicate edits for the sake of space. The full interview can be found at voicesweb.org.. The congressman’s staff was unable to provide the requested information.
By Suzan Erem
Voices: Thank you for taking the time to meet with me today. Please tell Voices readers your position regarding the role of federal and state regulatory agencies in protecting air, land and water quality?
Cong. Glenn Thompson: It’s very important at all those levels that we establish a baseline of regulations that are effective, articulated and frankly, are implemented. And we make sure those responsible for implementing are doing their jobs. No matter what an individual’s political registration is, or leanings, we all like clean air we all like clean water.
My experience is when you create regulations and get that baseline. Bureaucrats create regulations that never go away so when another idea comes up it’s like a layer. It becomes like an onion, so at some point you have to wonder whether many regulations on the books are really necessary. We never take the time to review them.
Most recently, on the federal level, the Environmental Protection Agency has seen 34 percent budget growth over the past two years. They have moved from being the Environmental Protection Agency to in some instances becoming the excessive punishment agency. Part of that issue is how they’ve stepped over the line. The job of the executive branch is to administer what the legislative branch puts into law.
Voices: A few days ago, local residents protested in front of your office about your votes regarding the EPA. They charged that none of the amendments that you voted for – closing loopholes on the clean water act, developing rules to reduce soot that harms children – for example, reduce the deficit, as you’ve claimed. Can you tell me specifically how those reduced the deficit?
G.T.: It was taking that 34 percent increase and bringing that back down to a 2008 pre-stimulus, pre-spending spree level. No one else experienced windfall like that at the time. The EPA was really one of the winners. They’ve acknowledged they were going to reconsider what they were doing for outside furnaces for greenhouse gasses. The mandates they were putting on those were really significant. They announced they are redoing those and reducing the mandates, so there’s been some acknowledgment that some of what they were doing was excessive.
Voices: So these rules to reduce soot or close loopholes in the Clean Water Act…are those savings? Deficit reducing?
The cost, those were all going to fund regulatory measures that were above and beyond the baseline. Those amendments will do nothing to put at risk to clean air and water. The executive branch function is to implement or administer the will of Congress. It’s a matter of accountability and putting things back within the lines of the constitution. We all want clean water. We all want clean air.
Voices: Marcellus Shale represents a dramatic change in Pennsylvania’s landscape. While some good jobs are being created, people in your district are also afraid of drinking water contamination, housing values dropping, truck traffic and harm to our state forests. What do you believe is the role of the government in relation to these risks?
Housing values, it’s had an opposite effect. Tioga County property values have gone up, rentals have gone up. We’re starting to see demand for new construction. State forests are like national forests. They are not parks. They were created by local government, by local individuals over time for the purpose of providing sustainable resources. By definition that’s what a state or national forest is. Predominantly that’s timber, but also oil, natural gas and minerals.
GT: And you think of oil, natural gas and minerals as sustainable resources?
GT: Well, timber’s more sustainable of the four. Timber’s the original renewable resource. But they are resources that were part of the reason these forests were created.
Voices: Drinking water?
GT: That is something we absolutely have to protect. We are blessed that God has provided this natural resource and he has also provided us with science and technology to access it. It’s not something new. Since the 1960s there’ve been 800,000 to a million wells hydrofracked. I am so thankful we have a great agency at the state level over regulating that – the Department of Environmental Protection. Secretary [John] Hanger and I got to be colleagues when he came into that position two years ago. It’s very important to me we pursue this opportunity in a responsible way. I was very pleased with the level of accountability. The DEP has found bad actors and put them out of business and that’s the way it should work.
Voices: What bad actors have they put out of business?
GT: Some of the folks in the northwest and northeast.
Voices: Cabot is still operating. Range Resources is still operating. There’ve been some smaller mom and pops operating earlier on. Dimock folks still operating…
GT: Dimock was not hydrofracking. That was shallow drilling. Shallow vertical wells do present a higher risk than some of the deeper horizontal wells with the multiple casings, up to four through and below the area of the water table with the deeper wells seem to be a very proven technology for protecting our water table. As I talk to some of the scientists at Penn State, those folks have showed me how in the process of doing the drilling with the proper casing it was impossible to cross-contaminate within the water table. Now, shallower or vertical wells, that’s what was going on in Dimock. That’s a whole different ball game.
Truck traffic is significant. The two aspects of that – first of all is new innovations. The companies now are working aggressively to reduce truck traffic and wear and tear on roads by installing pipelines and by recycling 90 percent of what they’re using on site. But there’s still a lot of truck traffic involved. In terms of the wear and tear, I’ve been very pleased with the permitting and bonding requirements. They have to restore them to at least the level of quality when they’re done. In many counties the companies are working proactively with the Department of Transportation, going in and taking roads that are in relatively poor condition and rebuilding them. The best example, out the back of Lock Haven to Coudersport, Coudersport Pike. Used to be a washboard road, until recently I needed a liver transplant when I was done. It was bad. It’s a superhighway today, paved by Hawbaker. It cost $34 million to pave, and not one tax dollar used. Anadarko paid for it. That’s impressive.
Voices: The National Academy of Sciences was created by President Abraham Lincoln in 1863 to advise Congress on policy-relevant scientific matters. You have members of this academy, co-recipients of the Nobel Prize, and other world-class scientists working in your district’s premier research institution, Penn State. Do you accept their unanimous findings that human-caused climate change is reality, and represents a potential threat to society if not dealt with?
GT: The word unanimous is kind of interesting. Global warming has become one of the more divisive political issues, unfortunately. People on both sides on both sides are adamant…award-winning scientists on the other side…I get a tremendous amount of professionally-prepared scholarly works from the scientific community, some of it is climate scientists, some geology, mineral sciences, not much from meteorology, but that’s kind of a short-term thing. I don’t think there is a consensus. I’m speaking nationally. I don’t have the books with me actually.
Voices: But the academy’s job is to advise Congress. The National Academy of Sciences is unanimous. Nobel Prize scientists are unanimous.
GT: Some of the Google sheets that list scientists from University of Oklahoma, USDA, all kinds of different places who have contrary findings. It is an exercise that’s not very productive, because this debate is so divisive, we’re not going to get consensus. The president recognizes this – there was no mention of cap and trade in his state of the union address. What’s important, what we can all agree on, is the importance of clean air, clean water, taking care of the environment, being good stewards. That’s incredibly important to me in my new leadership position as chairman of the agriculture committee. Take conservation. The programs we have are wonderful for the environment, addressing phosphorus, keeping nitrogen out of our streams, carbon recapture. The energy responsibility I have is limited to agriculture, but where we have problems with nutrient runoff related to manure, with the investments and advancements we have we create methane digesters and take a problem we’re polluting, and we not only stop the pollution but we use it to create relatively clean energy. And that’s a good thing. Finally, forestry. I don’t have all public lands, but I have jurisdiction for a lot of forests in the country and the best thing we can do for carbon recapture is make sure our forest are healthy and managed correctly, because if we do that, we have great potential. Healthy forests go a long ways on the whole issue of not polluting into the air or into the water for that matter.
Voices: Then why are we looking at zeroing out conservation measures under the farm bill? Is that something you support?
G.T.: They weren’t zeroed out, but they were dramatically reduced. And I don’t support that. There are some that believe farm programs are wasteful but I don’t believe that. We never want to become dependent on a foreign country for our food supply. The reductions for the National Conservation Resource Service, I don’t support that. We have 31 million acres in conservation. Sometimes you start a program and it doesn’t turn out, but over the years we’ve cleaned that up, and conservation is something I’ll be leading the effort on. I’ll be having hearings specifically on conservation issues.
Our conservation programs have cleaned up the Chesapeake Bay significantly. On eight of the indicators published by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, there’s been significant progress – the blue crabs have returned to the bay. Most of that’s been accomplished through the voluntary efforts in agriculture, specifically these conservation programs for farmers. The phosphorus and nitrogen readings – the Susquehanna Valley River Basin Commission just released – the percentage drops of phosphorus and nitrogen at four points show significant drops. Most of that is the result of voluntary efforts.
Voices: There were some mandatory programs.
GT: There were, but most of the projects have really been voluntary that were successful.
Voices: You say the Susquehanna Valley is seeing drops, but I understand the Chesapeake Bay is not seeing significant drops.
GT: Let’s put it this way: Pennsylvania’s doing our part. There’s hundreds of thousands of people moving into where? The Chesapeake Bay. That contributes. Don’t blame it all on our farmers. I think our farmers are doing a very, very good job.
Voices: It is astounding, the level of credibility of the scientists you have at Penn State, for you the congressman from this region, to say essentially the jury’s still out on global warming…
GT: Most of my constituents in the 5th district would find it astounding that there’s folks who don’t respect the fact there is not a consensus on this, that there are opposing opinions that need to be respected as well.
Voices: That’s the question. If you’re looking at the National Academy of Sciences compared to some guy from Oklahoma…
GT: There’s controversy on all sides.
Voices: Well, a Feb. 18 report by the Inspector General of the Dept. of Commerce confirms that despite the released emails played up by climate change skeptics as a lack of consensus, there is in fact consensus of human-caused climate change among the world’s top scientists. We haven’t been able to find anyone with any scientific credentials to question it…
GT: I don’t see the science is settled. I think the science is settled in terms of climate change. I live in a cut in the Bald Eagle Ridge, formed by glaciers and if I did around enough I have sea shells. So climate changes, we know that. I recently had one of the soil scientists from Penn State came to visit me with their national association and recognizing that climate will change because it always has, I rely on these experts to help us specifically in my role in agriculture making sure we’re preparing for what is coming. Whether it’s the amount of water available, temperature, whether it’s colder or warmer, I can’t seem to get a handle on that. In terms of a public policy perspective that’s the important thing, how do we adapt?
We have great folks not just at Penn State, we have Lock Haven and Mansfield and Clarion and ag cooperative extension…lots of great resources.
Voices: Could you give me names of some of the scientists you’ve been talking to?
GT I can show you some of the stuff off the Internet. You’ll probably get it the same way I did.
Voices: It’s the information that’s coming into your ears that’s relevant, not what I can find on the Internet.
GT: I have meetings with folks all the time, on different topics. But when it comes to climate…We just had two folks, a couple from Penn State last week, we talked mostly about soil and the changes that were coming. I meet with everybody, including people from Penn State who believe passionately in global warming. What’s helpful for me is not who’s right and who’s wrong. I appreciate their expertise, but frankly, it’s all based on modeling, I understand that applying scientific methodology. I have to take it as public policy and my commitment is obviously to a clean environment, an environment where we’re reducing pollutants in the air. How much they contribute to global warming, I don’t know, I leave that to the scientific debate.
The bottom line is we shouldn’t be polluting into the air and into the water. My role is to look at how we effectively and cost effectively reduce these pollutants whether it be air or water and to engage in something that is politically divisive debates, I’m not sure it serves a purpose to engage in that debate itself when the end is a cleaner earth, with less carbon emissions. What we may debate is the methodology of how we get to the point where we all want to be.
Voices: So you say you respect the expertise of scientists from Penn State?
GT: And I’ve had visits by folks with opposing views.
Voices: Maybe I can get those names from your staff?
GT: Let me see if I can find the names of the people who’ve been in.
Voices: To clarify, did you not co-sponsor HR 97, the Free Industry Act, Section 2 of which, according to the Library of Congress, says:
“The term `air pollutant' shall not include carbon dioxide, water vapor, methane, nitrous oxide, hydrofluorocarbons, perfluorocarbons, or sulfur hexafluoride.”
And section 3 of which is summarized as:
“Nothing in the Clean Air Act shall be treated as authorizing or requiring the regulation of climate change or global warming?”
We have you down as a cosponsor.
GT: If I’m listed as one, I probably am.
Voices: So if our goal is a cleaner earth, and less carbons, what is it about not defining an air pollutant such as hydrofluorocarbons, which something that has been not questioned for 20 or 30 years now, or carbon dioxide?
G.T.: It really comes down to where is the baseline and what is excessive and where has the EPA gone without congressional direction and without congressional authority. I think that’s the…
Voices: Here is Congress saying, “EPA, just in case you want to go there, we’re going to define carbon dioxide and hydrofluorocarbons as NOT air pollutants.”
G.T.: It never even came to a vote. I believe that was a reaction to the EPA circumventing all of its scientific methodology, the due diligence it’s supposed to go through to determine what is and what isn’t a hazardous gas. All the evidence we saw in Congress, specifically when it came to carbon dioxide, the EPA wasn’t working as scientists. They failed to follow their own protocol.
Voices: So you’re saying the EPA did not determine through scientific method that carbon dioxide was hazardous.
GT: That was the motivation for the legislation as I recall.
Voices: Do you believe carbon dioxide, methane and hydrofluorocarbons are air pollutants?
G.T.: I don’t believe carbon dioxide is. (Long pause.) I think the question was linking this to policies regarding global warming as well.
Voices: Your second highest campaign contributions, after the healthcare, came from the energy and natural resources sector, about $156,000. What do you say to people who charge that this influences your position on these issues and directly affects the health of Pennsylvania’s environment?
G.T.: I keep a strict firewall between the policy side and the politics side. You have to do that by law. It’s a separate staff. When people support my campaign, as an individual or coming together as a Political Action Committee, I appreciate that. It doesn’t give them any more access than what every one of the 660,000 citizens I work for have. There are some blatant situations where one of my very good supporters early on was someone very interested in seeing I-80 tolled but I was the champion that opposed tolling Interstate 80. This is the Pennsylvania 5th Congressional district, and we are the energy district for the country. Oil was discovered here 151 years ago, we have the Marcellus, and we’ve been drilling for 150 years, we’ve been hydrofracking for 60 years, drilling for 100 or more. We are a tremendous resource for coal, that generates 60 percent of our electricity, and we’ve got great research going on at PSU on coal, renewable energy and the first non-defense non-commercial nuclear reactor in the country that sits on the Penn State campus.
We really are the energy district, and a lot of people live in this district who for generations have worked in energy. My energy plan is No. 1, energy efficiency, invest in appliances, cars, homes…Second part is using our domestic resources we are blessed with, we can control pollution, that science is evolving, it’s going to get better and better. My goal in terms of that second one is energy security. I would love to see us shut off the pipeline from the Middle East. If we have a meltdown like Libya in Saudi Arabia, gas prices that are $3.27 will be $5.27 and that’s just symptomatic of having an addiction to foreign oil. We’re going to need petroleum and natural gas as a bridge until we have renewable energy that work and don’t need to be government subsidized. I think we’ll get there but it’s going to take a long time. Third is research and development. I do not support commercializing them prematurely. I’ve seen what we happened with the ethanol. We put probably billions into ethanol; it takes as much energy to produce it than to use it. It drives up the cost of corn and the cost of food, and if the government stops the subsidies that whole industry goes away.
Voices: Your party’s top stated priority is to cut the deficit. According to the Wall Street Journal, last year, Chevron tripled its earnings, with $5.4 billion in profits. Exxon Mobile’s second quarter earnings more than tripled. ConocoPhillips profits also tripled. This industry is not hurting. You recently had an opportunity to cut the deficit by $53 billion in subsidies to oil companies. Why did you vote against that?
G.T.: We don’t subsidize oil; that argument’s framed that way in Washington. Our tax policy provides tax incentives for many industries. Oil and natural gas is just one small portion of that.
Voices: Given how well they’re doing, will they go away if they don’t get it?
GT: They’re businesses; I like to grow jobs. Whatever you tax, you repress. I’d like to address this in terms of the tax code. It’s too complex, there are too many loopholes. Only 49 percent of Americans pay taxes…
Voices: So getting back to the $53 billion that could have paid down the deficit but continues as a benefit to oil companies that have tripled their profits during the worst recession since 1932, tell me again why you wouldn’t be on the side of reducing the deficit with that vote.
GT: I’m not in favor of any kind of tax increases to start with. What we have is not a revenue problem, it’s a spending problem. As we simplify the tax code we can address some of those things. People put forth these types of amendments to distract us from doing what we should be doing, and that is cutting spending, reducing the size of government, getting ourselves back inside the lines of what we should be doing.
Voices: Do you have anything particular in mind that would grow jobs and research and development for renewable energy?
One of the things that’s time tested is natural gas. It’s homegrown, it’s clean, it’s efficient. I’m not a huge proponent of using natural gas to generate electricity. Natural gas is better used in manufacturing. Most things sitting on the coffee table use natural gas as an ingredient or certainly as a process. Another thing that could take us light years toward ending our addition on foreign oil is to use it in transportation. One guy, in his garage, all he does is convert vehicles to duel fuel. It’s proven to be safe and it’s safer than at tank full of gasoline. We have incredible opportunities at looking at transportation – and that’s proven, we know that works.
Let’s really invest in science and research, I’m a big fan with the national energy labs. Penn State students now have a new partnership with the one in Pittsburgh. That’s a place full of great scientists. They look at all kinds of alternative energies.
Voices: I specifically asked about renewable energy and most people would agree natural gas is not renewable.
GT: Well I don’t know, but Marcellus and Utica, there’s a helluva lot there. But in terms of traditional renewable, we’re not there yet with wind, solar…It’s my gut that the future in energy is in solar, but we may be generations away from that. Right now wind and solar require significant government subsidies. Without them they’re not sustainable. Part of that is developing battery systems and I know we’re aggressively working on that. It doesn’t do any good to produce wind or solar energy off peak hours because there’s no way to store it. Certainly there’s specific value in location, proximity to the grid, a whole host of factors, but as a final solution to meeting our energy needs in this country, we’re not there yet. Alternative energy is still only 4 percent of our energy needs in this country even after we’ve invested billions of dollars. I think that’s going to grow but let’s be sure we’re developing that technology before we do what we’ve done with ethanol.
Voices: Do you think there’s a role for subsidies as there’s been one in the oil industry, the airline industry…
GT: Here’s my prediction for the future – there’ll be less subsidies for everybody, oil and all the rest. But we should never stop our scientific advancement. We should always be investing in innovation. That starts at the training of young people to become scientists.
Voices: Someone at the demonstration the other day said to me, “Ask him why he’s not listening to us.”
GT: I do listen. My question to them is, why weren’t they talking to me? I respect the right for them to do what they did. I meet with everyone. And I listen with an open mind. I benefit from those exchanges. And in the end, I know that every time I make a decision out of the 660,000 people there’ll be some who don’t agree. That’s the way life is. In the end I have to make the best possible decision based on the information you have.