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Late last week, John Quigley, secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, abruptly resigned. News reports pointed to a controversial email in which Mr. Quigley angrily demanded that environmental groups more boldly defend proposed oil and gas regulations.

It didn’t take long for some legislators to accuse Mr. Quigley of governmental impropriety. In the meantime, the email controversy continues to generate media stories.

But the real scandal here is the loss of a DEP secretary who was trying to do his job and fulfill DEP’s mission “to protect Pennsylvania’s air, land and water from pollution and to provide for the health and safety of its citizens through a cleaner environment.” This, despite inheriting staff and budget cuts at DEP and a legacy of state failure to clean up pollution.

Mr. Quigley pushed hard for revised oil and gas regulations (in the works for nearly five years) that would limit risky practices like the storage of toxic waste in open pits, allow DEP to thoroughly review permit applications to drill near schools and playgrounds, and require operators to identify old, potentially leaking wells before drilling new ones nearby.

Mr. Quigley also announced DEP’s plan to reduce emissions of methane (a major driver of climate change) and health-harming pollution from oil and gas operations. DEP had also revised policies on managing oil and gas violations and has been gearing up to strengthen guidelines for the replacement of private water supplies damaged by oil and gas operations.

Recent weeks have seen a strong push to derail the oil and gas regulations through legislation and an industry lawsuit. The Marcellus Shale Coalition of oil and gas companies shot back at the methane plan, despite no evidence to support its claim that drillers are reducing pollution voluntarily. Attempts are even underway to give the Legislature greater control over regulation, which would usurp DEP’s legally established authority, and to restrict DEP from adopting methane-control measures stronger than federal ones.

Mr. Quigley often stated that the industry shouldn’t be allowed to operate with impunity and at great cost to air, water and health. Relative to his immediate predecessors, his approach marked a huge change. That change was unacceptable to the oil and gas industry in Pennsylvania, which has long been accustomed to having its private interests prioritized far ahead of the public interest.

It is to maintain this dominant position that the oil and gas lobby has funneled Marcellus money into legislative coffers. It is why there's been a continually revolving door between DEP and industry personnel, including some high-profile cases during the recent shale boom.

It is also why every DEP secretary prior to John Quigley had strong ties to the oil and gas industry. His direct predecessor, Michael Krancer, worked for a gas utility before entering government and immediately joined a law firm defending drillers after leaving. In contrast, Mr. Quigley worked in local and state government and the nonprofit and business sectors.

Unfortunately, Mr. Quigley’s departure may reinforce the impression many communities nationwide have that state government is politically incapable of reining in the oil and gas industry. Whether it’s Colorado and Texas invalidating local control on behalf of the industry or New Mexico rejecting common sense regulations, a message is being sent that the deck is stacked in favor of oil and gas companies. In the meantime, the movement to prohibit oil and gas development and rapidly transition to clean energy continues to grow stronger.

Pennsylvania oil and gas operators were clearly very angry at John Quigley for his criticisms of them and for trying to change the status quo. But the next DEP secretary should also refuse to let industry pressure block the protections that Pennsylvanians want and deserve, as should Gov. Tom Wolf. Not doing so would amount to government malfeasance, with truly dire consequences for communities and the environment against which no email from an angry official could ever compare.

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