Gas drillers make waves in Pa. with NFL tickets

AP News
Posted: Feb 23, 2011 9:13 PM
Gas drillers make waves in Pa. with NFL tickets

When John Hanger, then the state's top environmental regulator, was offered a coveted trip to the Super Bowl to see the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2009, he turned it down.

The offer came from Consol Energy, one of the energy companies thirsting after the riches of the nation's largest-known natural gas reservoir, the Marcellus Shale.

"I didn't regularly get invitations like that," said Hanger, who at the time was working to toughen regulations on drillers swarming into Pennsylvania.

The industry, which is pouring billions of dollars into drilling across Pennsylvania, also is spending millions more in lobbying and political campaign contributions. Unlike most states, Pennsylvania has no limits on individual campaign contributions or gifts to public officials.

Consol, traditionally a coal company based in Canonsburg, found at least two takers for the Steelers' appearance earlier this month in the Super Bowl: two state senators, including their chamber's highest-ranking member, who flew at Consol's expense to Dallas.

Republican Senate President Pro Tem Joe Scarnati and Democrat Tim Solobay, whose districts are home to brisk drilling activity, say they will reimburse Consol for some or all of the cost.

Republican Gov. Tom Corbett, who took office less than six weeks ago, received nearly $1 million in campaign contributions from the gas industry. Insisting that that will not influence policy decisions, Corbett pledged during his campaign to oppose any tax on Marcellus Shale production and has said he supports the expansion of drilling on state forest lands.

Barry Kauffman, the executive director of the government watchdog and advocacy group Common Cause Pennsylvania, said campaign contributions and gifts typically get the givers access to public officials.

"Corbett had already said he would be a gas industry ally," Kauffman said. "One of the key roles that money played is ensuring that the gas industry's guy won."

In recent days, Corbett's administration moved to reverse a 4-month-old policy viewed by environmental advocates as an extra layer of protection against drilling damage in state parks and forests where the state doesn't own the below-ground gas rights. A critic of the policy, Sen. Mary Jo White, a Republican, called it irresponsible and ill-conceived.

Then on Tuesday, a Corbett spokesman reiterated what the governor has said, that he intends to lift a ban on leasing as much as 1.5 million acres of state forest land for gas drilling. That ban, imposed late last year by former Gov. Ed Rendell, was supported by Trout Unlimited and the Pennsylvania Federation of Sportsmen's Clubs.

"He's looking at that," said spokesman Kevin Harley. "That will probably be coming in the future."

Like Corbett, Scarnati and Solobay have maintained they would not be influenced by campaign contributions or gifts.

"Whether you get a hot dog at the cafeteria or you're having a state dinner at the Tavern, people need to give us more credit than what they do sometimes," said Solobay, referring to a pricey restaurant near Harrisburg.

Kauffman said it is only human nature to be influenced.

"I know people who treat me well, and I tend to treat them better," he said. "Access to lawmakers is sort of the currency of the realm, and certainly what campaign contributions and gifts and hospitality get you, at a minimum, is preferential access. And if you get in to make your case, that's often all you need. People who give you campaign contributions or a trip to the Super Bowl, they're going to get in to see you."

The Marcellus Shale formation lies primarily beneath Pennsylvania, New York, West Virginia and Ohio. But Pennsylvania is the center of activity, with more than 2,000 wells drilled in the past three years and many thousands more planned. Meanwhile, production from the shale, still in its early stages, is already as brisk as production from the tens of thousands of wells in Pennsylvania's longstanding shallow gas industry.

State forest leases under Rendell resulted in more than 25 wells, with many more possible. For two years, Rendell, a Democrat, pressed for a gas extraction tax and for much of it, the Republican-controlled Senate, with Scarnati in charge, turned away his proposals before countering with a proposed tax that Rendell viewed as far too low.

Pennsylvania remains the largest natural gas state in the nation without any kind of tax on gas production.

Still, the industry has had trouble getting what it wants from the Legislature, including a provision called pooling, which could be used to force holdout landowners, under certain conditions, to lease their below-ground gas rights. The industry also seeks limits on the ways that municipal zoning ordinances could affect drilling activity.

In the meantime, Hanger pushed through tougher regulations on drilling safety, chemical disclosure and wastewater disposal that, so far, the industry isn't publicly clamoring for Corbett to repeal.

"When you factor in well design standards, number of inspectors per rig, regularity of violations and wastewater standards," said Matt Pitzarella, a spokesman for Fort Worth, Texas-based driller Range Resources Corp., "I don't think there's many places in the United States that have as an expansive and robust regulatory program as Pennsylvania."