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Friday, January 20, 2012

Changing Priorities: Science Funding Slashed Under Corbett Administration

From StateImpact.npr.org by Scott Detrow on 1-18-12 


Mem­bers of Penn­syl­va­nia Gov. Tom Corbett’s admin­is­tra­tion rou­tinely insist their Mar­cel­lus Shale drilling pol­icy is based on science.
But doc­u­ments obtained by StateIm­pact Penn­syl­va­nia, as well as inter­views with more than a dozen peo­ple who work both inside and out of state gov­ern­ment, high­light top-level deci­sions to dimin­ish or defund drilling-related sci­en­tific research in the com­mon­wealth. Sci­en­tists say the decline in government-funded research dur­ing the first year of the Cor­bett Admin­is­tra­tion leaves open ques­tions about how ani­mals, wildlife and the cli­mate are affected by Pennsylvania’s drilling boom.
Emails and inter­views show Cor­bett appointee Richard Allan, who serves as Depart­ment of Con­ser­va­tion and Nat­ural Resources Sec­re­tary, over­saw sig­nif­i­cant changes to a state sci­en­tific research pro­gram and removed projects exam­in­ing the impact of nat­ural gas drilling and cli­mate change from a rec­om­mended fund­ing list.
Last month, Allan slashed the bud­get of the agency’s wildlife research pro­gram by nearly 70 per­cent. He did this with­out con­sult­ing the four-person staff respon­si­ble for vet­ting sub­mit­ted pro­pos­als and rec­om­mend­ing them for funding.
Allan has said that too many of the research projects were already being addressed by agency employ­ees. In a state­ment to StateIm­pact Penn­syl­va­nia, the depart­ment attrib­utes its cuts to declin­ing rev­enue in the con­ser­va­tion program’s fund. But the state­ment did not address how Allan selected which projects to keep and which ones to cut.
In 2010, under the admin­is­tra­tion of then-Gov. Ed Ren­dell, the agency’s Wild Resource Con­ser­va­tion Pro­gram funded four stud­ies inves­ti­gat­ing drilling’s impact on song­birds, sala­man­ders and other wildlife and helped pay for nine cli­mate change stud­ies. This year, just one drilling-related effort will receive state fund­ing. These changes came after the  con­ser­va­tion program’s ini­tial call for research pro­pos­als specif­i­cally asked researchers to sub­mit stud­ies exam­in­ing the effects of cli­mate change and energy extraction.
The reduc­tion and revi­sion of a rec­om­mended projects con­tra­dicts the governor’s insis­tence that his drilling pol­icy is dic­tated by sci­ence, some say.
“It would seem that he doesn’t really mean what he says,” said Cyn­thia Mor­ton of the Carnegie Museum of Nat­ural His­tory, whose research on how cli­mate change will affect Penn­syl­va­nia plants was green-lighted for a $34,055 grant before agency offi­cials culled the list. “Sci­ence is based on facts. At least the kind of sci­ence I do is based on facts. I really wasn’t one hun­dred per­cent sure cli­mate change is going to hap­pen. But I want to have the infor­ma­tion there.”

THE SELEC­TION PROCESS

Here’s how the con­ser­va­tion program’s grant fund­ing typ­i­cally works: Each spring, the pro­gram posts its tar­geted grant pri­or­i­ties. Researchers sub­mit appli­ca­tions, and a team of three state employ­ees works with the program’s exec­u­tive direc­tor to review sub­mis­sions and arrive at a list of rec­om­mended projects and grant totals. In mid-October, the Wildlife Resource Con­ser­va­tion Board meets to vote on which projects to fund. The board has seven mem­bers: the agency’s sec­re­tary, the exec­u­tive direc­tors of the Fish & Boat and Game Com­mis­sions, and the major­ity and minor­ity chairs of the state House and Sen­ate envi­ron­men­tal committees.
Dur­ing the admin­is­tra­tion of Ren­dell, a Demo­c­rat, the con­ser­va­tion program’s projects focused on the impact of cli­mate change. As nat­ural gas drilling in Pennsylvania’s Mar­cel­lus Shale for­ma­tion picked up steam, the pro­gram began solic­it­ing research in that area, too.

REVIS­ING THE PRIORITIES

Last year, the process was no dif­fer­ent. The request for pro­pos­als went out in March, a bit more than a month after Cor­bett, a Repub­li­can, took office. “Penn­syl­va­nia species and nat­ural sys­tems are fac­ing an increas­ing num­ber of envi­ron­men­tal stresses,” the tar­geted pri­or­i­ties doc­u­ment read, “includ­ing habi­tat frag­men­ta­tion and loss, inva­sive species, cli­mate change, and the effects of energy extrac­tion and distribution.”
Through mid-October, it was busi­ness as usual. The three state employ­ees who vet projects reviewed 46 appli­ca­tions, which included five Mar­cel­lus Shale projects and four cli­mate change research plans. On Octo­ber 13, the program’s exec­u­tive direc­tor, Greg Czar­necki, emailed a list of 21 rec­om­mended projects to Sec­re­tary Allan and the program’s board.
The rec­om­mended projects list shows Czar­necki and his staffers wanted to fund two projects ana­lyz­ing plant growth along the gashes left by newly-installed nat­ural gas pipelines. They rec­om­mended $36,000 for the sec­ond year of a Penn State Study assess­ing drilling’s impact on birds. The pro­gram had already allo­cated $37,709 to fund the first half of Pro­fes­sor Mar­garet Brittingham’s project in 2010.
Brit­ting­ham is tak­ing a look at what hap­pens to birds when for­est acres are cleared out for drill pads and access roads. “This would serve as base­line data,” she said.“We’re hop­ing from our results we’d be able to say these pat­terns of devel­op­ment are bet­ter than some other pat­terns. Or if you get up to a level of ten wells or five wells in [one area] you start to see changes in the bird com­mu­nity.” Brit­ting­ham hopes her data can help guide drilling within Pennsylvania’s state forests, which will rapidly expand over the com­ing years.
Two stud­ies research­ing cli­mate change’s impact on plant life and soil were rec­om­mended for fund­ing, includ­ing a pro­posal authored by the Carnegie Museum of Nat­ural History’s Cyn­thia Mor­ton. Her idea: to test the nationally-recognized Cli­mate Change Vul­ner­a­bil­ity Index, which uses fac­tors like species his­tory and geog­ra­phy to pre­dict how a plant or ani­mal would adapt to cli­mate change. “We’re try­ing to look at pat­terns,” she explained. “Try­ing to fig­ure out what is the cor­re­la­tion between where these plants live and their rank­ings in the Cli­mate Change Index … If we can start to see this is good mod­el­ing, it could really help us.” The list rec­om­mended $34,055 to help fund Morton’s research.
Other projects rec­om­mended for fund­ing included cat­a­loging the state’s bog tur­tle pop­u­la­tion and assess­ing an endan­gered species of rattlesnake.
A meet­ing to vote on the rec­om­men­da­tions was set Octo­ber 19 but never hap­pened. Allan can­celled the vote the day before because of sched­ul­ing conflicts.
That’s the last any­one in the Wild Resource Con­ser­va­tion Pro­gram office heard of the mat­ter for three weeks. On Novem­ber 10, a agency staffer emailed the board with a new date: Decem­ber 6. She noted “there have been some revi­sions to the list of grants rec­om­mended for funding.”
The revi­sion, it turned out, was the elim­i­na­tion of 13 rec­om­mended projects, includ­ing both cli­mate change pro­pos­als, and two of the three drilling-related efforts. The Con­ser­va­tion Program’s bud­get had been slashed from $780,000 to $251,683.
(Scroll down to the bot­tom of the arti­cle to read the ini­tial and revised lists of rec­om­mended projects.)
An email writ­ten by admin­is­tra­tive assis­tant Debra Miller blamed the reduc­tion on “cur­rent bud­get con­straints,” and claimed the remain­ing projects had been “care­fully vet­ted and selected by our Wild Resource Con­ser­va­tion Pro­gram office with addi­tional input from bureau per­son­nel within agency.”
Mul­ti­ple sources say that’s not true. Those involved in the grant rec­om­men­da­tion process say Miller’s email was the first time any­one typ­i­cally involved in the vet­ting had heard of the changes. The new list did not include any of the con­ser­va­tion program’s ini­tial priorities.
Only one energy or cli­mate change-related study remained: a project eval­u­at­ing plant growth along nat­ural gas pipeline routes.

“TRAN­SI­TION YEAR”

Why did Allan and other agency offi­cials elim­i­nate 68 per­cent of the program’s funding?
StateIm­pact Penn­syl­va­nia sub­mit­ted a list of ques­tions to the agency press office, ask­ing why Allan delayed the board’s ini­tial vote for a month-and-a-half, and why he trimmed the con­ser­va­tion program’s bud­get and fund­ing rec­om­men­da­tions, with­out con­sult­ing its staff.
We also asked how agency offi­cials selected which projects they’d fund, and which they’d remove from the rec­om­mended list.
In an emailed response, agency spokes­woman Chris Novak called 2011 a “tran­si­tion year,” and said Allan had other agency bureaus review the fund­ing list. She said the amount of money the depart­ment spends on research is dis­cre­tionary – it’s up to the secretary.
Since money going into the fund was down, Novak wrote “a deci­sion was made by agency lead­er­ship to ded­i­cate a smaller amount of fund­ing for the grants.”
She didn’t explain how projects were selected, and why the con­ser­va­tion pro­gram staff wasn’t involved in the fund­ing decision.
The con­ser­va­tion program’s fund­ing doesn’t come from the state’s gen­eral fund bud­get. Ded­i­cated dona­tions are the program’s pri­mary source of fund­ing. The next time you do your state taxes, look for the check-off box on the bot­tom of the form – you’ll be asked whether you want to con­tribute part of your tax return to the con­ser­va­tion pro­gram. The pro­gram also receives $15 every time a Penn­syl­van­ian buys one of those license plate fea­tur­ing an otter.  (The con­ser­va­tion pro­gram played a crit­i­cal role in revi­tal­iz­ing Pennsylvania’s river otter pop­u­la­tion in the 1980s and 90s.)
Corbett’s bud­get esti­mates the con­ser­va­tion pro­gram would have $445,000 avail­able for spend­ing this year: $278,000 in funds car­ried over from the 2010–2011 fis­cal year, and $167,000 in new rev­enue. A por­tion of the $80 mil­lion Envi­ron­men­tal Stew­ard­ship Fund is also avail­able for con­ser­va­tion pro­gram grants.
Penn­syl­va­nia law appro­pri­ates the fund money to agency to carry out the research autho­rized by the 1982 Wildlife Resource Con­ser­va­tion Act, which directs the program’s seven-member board to “approve projects or pro­grams for fund­ing as nec­es­sary to pre­serve and enhance wild resources.” The board is also autho­rized to use money from the Envi­ron­men­tal Stew­ard­ship Fund for research projects.
A week after the board vote, an agency press release announced $31.5 mil­lion in grants for “con­ser­va­tion and recre­ation projects designed to pro­tect nat­ural resources and revi­tal­ize com­mu­ni­ties across the state.” Some of the money came from the Envi­ron­men­tal Stew­ard­ship Fund.
Allan also told the board he was con­cerned too many of the projects rec­om­mended for fund­ing were dupli­cat­ing work already being car­ried out by Depart­ment of Con­ser­va­tion and Nat­ural Resources staffers. Repub­li­can Scott Hutchin­son, who chairs the House Envi­ron­men­tal Resources and Energy Com­mit­tee and sits on the con­ser­va­tion pro­gram board, agreed with Allan’s argument.
“If there are other fund­ing sources – other inter­nal ways for the depart­ment or their part­ners to do those kinds of stud­ies with­out using that fund­ing then we should take advan­tage of those,” he said in an inter­view.  “And the depart­ment felt that many of the projects that were on the orig­i­nal list were things inter­nal staff could or already was doing.”
The agency has recently expanded its staff of biol­o­gists, and now employs at least two researchers who devote all their time to mon­i­tor­ing nat­ural gas drilling and its impacts. But many of its other sci­en­tists have mul­ti­ple respon­si­bil­i­ties, and, accord­ing to one depart­ment employee, sim­ply don’t have the time or resources to carry out research projects like the ones ini­tially rec­om­mended for con­ser­va­tion pro­gram grants.
Hutchin­son thinks Allan can­celled the meet­ing as soon as he real­ized what was being pro­posed. “I don’t know that it was looked at in-depth by the upper lev­els of agency much before that orig­i­nal meet­ing was sched­uled,” Hutchin­son said in an inter­view. “And then they said, ‘oh my gosh.’ We all have to look twice – three times – at spend­ing money. Let’s look at this pro­gram, too.”
Hutchin­son sup­ported Allan’s revi­sion, and said he wouldn’t have voted for the ini­tial list.  In fact, the Venango County Repub­li­can made his oppo­si­tion to cli­mate change-related research very clear, dur­ing the con­ser­va­tion pro­gram board’s 2010 vote.

“DEEP RESER­VA­TION” DUR­ING 2010 MEETING

Min­utes from the Octo­ber 2010 meet­ing, held dur­ing the final months of Gov­er­nor Rendell’s tenure, when Democ­rats held five of the board’s seven votes, shed some light on why the Cor­bett Admin­is­tra­tion slashed the con­ser­va­tion program’s funding.
In 2010, nine of the rec­om­mended research projects exam­ined the impact of cli­mate change, and four looked at nat­ural gas drilling’s impli­ca­tions. Before the board voted, a staffer rep­re­sent­ing Hutchin­son at the meet­ing read a state­ment express­ing “deep con­cern and reser­va­tion” about the rec­om­mended projects. “In the past the [con­ser­va­tion pro­gram] has sup­ported projects that sought to restore a vari­ety of plant and non-game species to their habi­tats. It seems to me that this theme is not being car­ried for­ward,” Hutchin­son had writ­ten. “Instead, it appears to me, that the com­mit­tee is being asked to rec­om­mend projects for fund­ing that…[are] based upon advanc­ing spe­cific pub­lic pol­icy agen­das rather than one that is more neu­tral and sci­en­tific based.” Hutchin­son said he was refer­ring to the cli­mate change projects.
Patrick Hen­der­son rep­re­sented Repub­li­can Sen­a­tor Mary Jo White at the meet­ing. He had a prob­lem with the projects, too. The offi­cial min­utes, approved by the board dur­ing its 2011 meet­ing, read, “Mr. Hen­der­son expressed con­cern about nat­ural gas extrac­tion being iden­ti­fied as an envi­ron­men­tal impact.” He said, “these projects may not war­rant this grant money,” ref­er­enc­ing sour­ing bud­get conditions.
Hen­der­son, of course, went on to become Gov­er­nor Corbett’s point man on energy and drilling poli­cies. As Energy Exec­u­tive, Hen­der­son sat on Corbett’s 2011 Mar­cel­lus Shale Advi­sory Com­mis­sion, and wrote the bulk of its final report.
In an inter­view, Hen­der­son said the impli­ca­tion that he, as energy exec­u­tive, played any role in the con­ser­va­tion program’s fund­ing reduc­tion “is not a fair char­ac­ter­i­za­tion at all.”  Hen­der­son said he had noth­ing to do with the cut, which he said was likely “a mat­ter of 1) [the Depart­ment of Con­ser­va­tion and Nat­ural Resources] hav­ing a new sec­re­tary, and 2) avail­able dol­lars. Beyond that, agency can speak to it.”
As for his com­ments in 2010, when he was rep­re­sent­ing Sen­a­tor White, Hen­der­son dis­puted the meet­ing min­utes’ account. “The characterization…is not accu­rate,” he said. “Unless you were at the meet­ing, you can’t draw that conclusion.”
In 2010, Hen­der­son and Hutchin­son were in the minor­ity. The research projects were ulti­mately approved. A year later, when Repub­li­cans held con­trol, nearly 70 per­cent of con­ser­va­tion pro­gram fund­ing was cut.

POLIT­I­CAL FACTORS

Frank Fel­baum served as the con­ser­va­tion program’s exec­u­tive direc­tor for two decades, but left shortly after the pro­gram was folded into the Depart­ment of Con­ser­va­tion and Nat­ural Resources. He was wor­ried about polit­i­cal fac­tors creep­ing into research deci­sions – a sit­u­a­tion where the depart­ment brass would reduce fund­ing for projects they didn’t like.
Asked why these projects mat­ter, Fel­baum brought up the scar­let tan­ager, a bright red bird with black wings, who migrates to South and Cen­tral Amer­ica every win­ter. “Right now, these song­birds are really tak­ing it due to Mar­cel­lus [drilling],” he said. “The wells are rip­ping apart these inte­rior for­est areas for these song­birds that are com­ing back from South Amer­ica. One gas well is OK. But when you have thou­sands of gas wells? … The tan­agers are going to be impacted.”
Related
Nearly 20 per­cent of the world’s scar­let tan­ager pop­u­la­tion breeds in Penn­syl­va­nia, and Fel­baum said it’s impor­tant to fig­ure out what the well pads and access roads and pipeline clear­ings will mean for their habi­tats. It’s the exact study Mar­garet Brit­ting­ham of Penn State was car­ry­ing out, before her sec­ond year of fund­ing was elim­i­nated by agency. (Brit­ting­ham says she’ll be able to con­tinue her project, but its scope will be dras­ti­cally limited.)
Research, Fel­baum argued, “gives you the best avail­able sci­en­tific infor­ma­tion to make those deci­sions that will ben­e­fit the com­mon­wealth of Pennsylvania.”




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