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Letter from Pennsylvania: Government has No Business Dictating “Right Energy Mixes”

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

The Republican-controlled Pennsylvania General Assembly has a golden opportunity to stand up for free markets in the coming weeks. But whether it does so appears to be in serious doubt. And such a dereliction of legislative duty must not be tolerated.

Democrat Gov. Tom Wolf nominated Patrick McDonnell to become secretary of the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) on Sept. 21. He became acting secretary last May when DEP boss John Quigley, a former environmentalist, “resigned” over an expletive-laced email that  more than suggested a cozy, and thus conflicted, relationship with environmental extremists. After all, he once was one of them.

Quigley also appeared to bend over backwards to discount the importance of the shale gas and oil industry in the Keystone State. During a March investor conference call, he shilled for higher taxes on the industry -- “We’re leaving a lot of money on the table” -- and came across as seeking to dissuade investment in shale gas and oil extraction.

That’s certainly not the proper role of government, let alone a DEP secretary. It was seen as a back-door attempt to limit the industry’s footprint in a resource-rich state (and at a time when a glut of product had depressed prices and forced the industry to retrench).

But McDonnell comes with his own baggage. Touring the commonwealth in August, he talked of the environmental agency attempting to find “what is the right energy mix for the state.”

But that’s not a proper role for government, either. If it is, should Pennsylvanians next expect the formation of the Pennsylvania Department of Energy Production to lord over and to determine what energy sources should or should not be tapped? Many would say that’s already happening.

Simply put, the “right energy mix” is for the marketplace, not government, to determine. But the sad fact of the matter is that state and federal governments do just that with onerous and politically charged environmental rules that have no legal warrant. (Think of the federal  government’s patently unconstitutional Clean Power Plan now before the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeal as one of many examples.)

Environmentalist are singing praises for the McDonnell nomination. And even the shale oil and gas industry has given him the benefit of the doubt in expressing hope that it can work with him. McDonnell will require a two-thirds Senate majority. That should be a tall order given his “right energy mix” proposition. But most expect McDonnell to be confirmed. Easily.

McDonnell is a long-time state government employee, serving stints with the Public Utility Commission and the DEP. But his educational background -- a master’s degree in political science and a bachelor’s in politics -- has nothing to do with utility regulation or environmental protection. It does, however, have everything to do with the politics of environmental protection and kow-towing to the anti-fossil fuel lobby.

And, of course, the politics of environmental protection are all about envirocrats pulling the ears of bureaucrats as they push an environmental agenda that is not economically sustainable.

Thus, to rubber stamp McDonnell’s nomination would be a serious mistake for the GOP-controlled Pennsylvania Legislature. It must thoroughly vet McDonnell’s “right energy mix” statement.

Senators must ask what that means exactly. For that mindset -- yet another Hayekian fatal conceit -- portends many troubling possibilities, from increasingly regulating out of business energy sources that are out of favor with a state government increasingly conscripted by environmentalists, to the state and the DEP being so conceited as to think that they can command the energy marketplace. It’s a recipe for not only higher utility prices but job losses, energy shortages and a threat to the nation’s electric power grid.

And senators also must grill McDonnell about where -- in the Pennsylvania Constitution or even in state statute -- does the state and the DEP derive any warrant to determine “right energy mixes.”

The time to stop this kind of government charlatanism is now. And the place is in the Pennsylvania Senate.

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