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Pennsylvania DEP Secretary Quigley Resigns Over Questions About Email to Enviro Groups

A questionable email and strained relationships with his boss and lawmakers are thought to be among the reasons Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) Secretary John Quigley abruptly resigned his position late Friday, deepening turmoil within the state's top oil and gas regulatory agency.

Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf's administration announced Quigley's resignation with no explanation, saying only that DEP Policy Director Patrick McDonnell would serve as acting secretary. On Monday, Wolf spokesman Jeffrey Sheridan said he had nothing further to add. He did not address a questionable email that Quigley reportedly sent from a private address to environmental advocacy groups expressing frustration with delays in implementing an overhaul of regulations for the oil and gas industry and urging them to step up pressure on lawmakers and state officials to get them enacted.

The email could not be independently confirmed, but sources familiar with it told state news media organizations that Quigley aired frustrations about administration staff and strained relationships with lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.

"Is it a good thing that he's gone after sending emails that were disparaging of his boss? I think most people would say yes," said one oil and gas industry source who wished not to be named to discuss the matter candidly. "I think most folks that work in the natural gas industry would also agree -- especially for those with an objective view on policy and politics, anyway -- that there would need to be a need to separate the two. They would likely agree from a good government standpoint that elected officials in high positions and appointed positions shouldn't be using private email for advocacy-related work. I think it's a good thing all and all."

Quigley, who was appointed by Wolf in January 2015 to lead the state's top environmental agency, was a controversial pick from the start (see Shale Daily, Jan. 14, 2015). He had previously served as secretary of the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources under former Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell. His time working as a government relations manager for PennFuture, an environmental advocacy group that has at times been critical of the oil and gas industry, as well as negative comments he had made about the industry prior to joining DEP, were questioned by lawmakers during his confirmation hearings.

A pragmatic bureaucrat at times and a firebrand at others, Quigley vehemently insisted that the DEP lacks the personnel it needs to effectively do its job. He had consistently vocalized a need for more funding and he lamented the agency's outdated technology (see Shale Daily, April 4).

During a budget hearing in March, in which he voiced such concerns before lawmakers, Republican Chairman of the House Environmental Resources and Energy Committee Rep. John Maher, who has also sparred with Quigley over the DEP's new oil and gas regulations, said the "time has come to stop complaining about your headcount and start owning it" (see Shale Daily, March 1). After Quigley resigned on Friday, Maher said there was an "unfortunate level of discourse" during Quigley's tenure and added that his departure "creates an opportunity for the administration to improve its efforts for environmental protection."

"Gov. Wolf made a quick and appropriate decision in accepting the resignation of DEP Secretary John Quigley," added Democratic state Sen. John Yudichak, who also serves as minority chairman of the Senate energy committee. "Secretary Quigley demonstrated poor judgement and a clear inability to work with legislators to advance the governor's environmental agenda."

Quigley was in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh as recently as Wednesday and Thursday to discuss the agency's latest initiatives and challenges. To be sure, he faced a number of issues on various fronts, including a funding crisis, compliance with the Obama administration's Clean Power Plan, an overhaul of oil and gas regulations for the first time in decades and the usual controversy over the state's prolific Marcellus Shale production.

"If you were to put all the cabinet members in a row, he would be among the top two or three in terms of the most difficult and high profile jobs in the administration," said Terry Madonna, a political science professor at Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, PA. "Some of these positions depend heavily on relationships with lawmakers.

"I think with the DEP you have problems with wells, dams, state forests and there's more scrutiny. I think the profile of the DEP has increased exponentially over the last decade or so just by nature of what the office does, especially with fracking and all the fallout from that."

Quigley has not commented about his resignation. The state's leading environmental advocacy groups, in particular his former employer, PennFuture, along with the state's top oil and gas trade groups, have also declined to comment. But industry sources have consistently noted that since Quigley took office their relationship with the DEP has been strained (seeShale Daily, Dec. 4, 2015; April 8, 2015)

Quigley spearheaded efforts to tighten new oil and gas regulations that were already years in the making, saying there would be more transparency from the administration throughout the process and more accountability for the industry when the final rulemaking was completed (see Shale Daily, March 9, 2015). After more than four years, the DEP drafted drilling regulations for both conventional and unconventional industries that would, among other things, reduce impacts on public resources, such as schools and parks, help prevent spills, strengthen waste management and require stronger well site restoration standards (see Shale Daily, Jan. 6).

Both the Environmental Quality Board and the state's Independent Regulatory Review Commission approved them earlier this year, but the the House energy committee passed a resolution this month to prevent them from being implemented (see Shale Daily, May 5). Both Democrats and Republicans voted for the resolution, claiming that the DEP had ignored a state law requiring different regulations for conventional and unconventional drillers. The legislature has yet to vote on the resolution, which has slowed down implementation of the rulemaking.

Quigley is the third high-level official to resign from the Wolf administration. Earlier this year, former Policy Secretary John Hanger left to spend more time with his family, while Katie McGinty, who served as chief of staff, left to launch a campaign for the U.S. Senate. Wolf's energy adviser, David Sweet, who played a marginal role in the administration, also stepped-down and has since been nominated for a seat on the state Public Utility Commission.

What's more, two years ago, former DEP Secretary Christopher Abruzzo, who served under Republican Gov. Tom Corbett, resigned after a scandal involving sexually explicit emails that were exchanged among dozens of staffers in the state attorney general's office when he worked there (see Shale Daily, Oct. 3, 2014).

Quigley's replacement, McDonnell, is said by industry sources with knowledge of his work to be reasonable and objective. He's spent years with the DEP in a variety of roles and in his last position with the agency oversaw regulation and policy development. McDonnell also once served as executive policy manager for former Pennsylvania Public Utility Commissioner Pamela Witmer.

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