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New DEP chief catches heat for climate remarks

December 11. 2013 11:30PM

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HARRISBURG — Secretary of the Department of Environmental Protection Chris Abruzzo is under fire for statements about climate change he made to a state Senate committee before his name was sent to the full Senate for a vote.

Abruzzo, who received 42 of 50 state Senate votes Tuesday night, had been the department’s acting secretary since April. He also had served as Gov. Tom Corbett’s chief of staff and as a prosecutor for the state Attorney General’s Office.

During a Dec. 4 Environmental Resources and Energy Committee hearing, in which committee members grilled Abruzzo before taking a committee vote, state Sen. Daylin Leach, D-Montgomery, asked Abruzzo about his view on climate change.

“I won’t argue that there’s climate change. I think scientific evidence supports that,” Abruzzo said. “And I wouldn’t argue that among the factors that contribute to climate change, human kind seems to be one of those factors.”

Natural climate fluctuations over time are also a big factor, Abruzzo said.

Leach asked if Abruzzo believes climate change is harmful.

“Do you agree that it’s harmful in terms of our environment, species sustainability … do you think it’s a bad thing that the climate is changing?” Leach said.

Abruzzo’s response has riled environmentalists around the state.

“I guess there are some adverse effects that climate change may impact. … I’ve not read any scientific studies that would lead me to conclude that there are adverse impacts to human beings, or to animals, or to plant life at this small level of climate change, but I agree that there are impacts,” Abruzzo said. “I haven’t drawn any conclusions across the board.”

Further, Leach asked Abruzzo, if he were confirmed, would he pursue new policy to protect the country from climate change.

“I think Pennsylvania’s already doing at least its fair share, if not more than its fair share,” Abruzzo said “Climate change is a global issue. I don’t see any additional policies that I would pursue as the secretary at DEP to address climate change.”

Out of context

State Sen. John Yudichak, D-Plymouth Township, the committee’s minority chairman, said Wednesday the media has taken Abruzzo’s comments out of context, and called the public response a “gross mischaracterization” of the secretary’s remarks. There was an understanding at the hearing that Abruzzo was talking about immediate implications for global climate change.

“Lets be clear, I would not have supported a secretary that denies climate change. It’s the issue of how fast is that happening … and what policies are best to address climate change,” Yudichak said.

The Philadelphia environmental advocacy group PennEnvironment had urged senators to reject Abruzzo.

Elowyn Corby, who advocates clean-air policy for the organization, said Abruzzo’s statements have minimized the impact of climate change.

“Which leads me to believe he has not placed it as a top priority,” Corby said.

Governor’s cabinet

The secretary’s job, as a member of the governor’s cabinet, is to extend the wishes of the governor, Yudichak said.

“Secretary Abruzzo simply reflects the environmental polices of this administration,” Yudichak said. “He reflects an administration that does not have a great track record in terms of the environment. I think we have to recognize that to change the ideological viewpoint of the secretary of DEP, you’re gonna have to change administrations.”

Yudichak said Abruzzo has effectively served as acting secretary. He has toured the Luzerne County region and is a competent attorney, a characteristic that is increasingly important to defend Pennsylvania’s environment, Yudichak said.

But ultimately, the secretary must adhere to federal Environmental Protection Agency’s edicts, Corby said.

“Regardless of who is in charge of the DEP, it will be incumbent on them to enforce those rules,” Corby said. “If the EPA says ‘Jump,’ Abruzzo will have to say ‘How high?’ ”

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