Gas field politics affect leadership in Western Pa. communities
By Timothy Puko
Published: Saturday, Feb. 8, 2014, 9:00 p.m.
Rodger Kendall says he never wanted to enter politics, but when he did, he waded into one of the biggest political conflicts in Pennsylvania.
Kendall became a supervisor in Robinson, Washington County, in January, less than three weeks since it won a landmark state Supreme Court ruling overturning part of new laws aimed at eliminating local obstacles to shale drilling.
Despite the win, he used his first night in office, Jan. 6, to lead a vote to remove Robinson from the case. Then he made his first official call as a township supervisor to Range Resources Corp.
In one election, voters dumped two of the township's three supervisors and shifted the township's position on drilling.
“The new administration is a gas-friendly administration,” said Kendall, 48, who has his own gas lease with Range Resources. “We have no intention of holding up or hindering the industry.”
Robinson wants out of the fight it started, Robinson et al v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania et al, over Act 13 oil and gas reforms. Lawyers for the township have to get the court's permission to be dropped from the case in which it is the lead plaintiff.
The state moved to establish uniform rules for gas drilling, among other things, with Act 13. But Robinson and others mounted a successful challenge to preserve municipal control over gas drilling through local zoning regulations.
Ultimately, Robinson's decision to drop out of the case is a formality. Several other plaintiffs will keep the case moving through appeals courts.
Robinson's revised stance shows how far the influence of the shale gas boom can reach — down to a three-person township government. The community of about 2,000 people in rural hills just west of Allegheny County has been caught up in debates over fairness, money and power.
About-face on drilling
Strong public support for gas drilling is as prominent in Robinson as anywhere in Pennsylvania, said Kendall, a Democrat. He believes voters who support drilling elected him and ally Stephen L. Duran, a Republican.
But Kendall's political opponents say outside influence is reaching in, too.
“I never experienced anything like this,” said Irene Barrie, 61, who opposed drilling and supported ousted supervisor Brian Coppola. “People just see money, and they don't care about anything else.”
Coppola, a Republican, said he didn't oppose drilling but wanted to ensure the companies follow rules and pay for any disruptions. The board approved several wells, then got involved in legal fights with drillers who claimed permits weren't being approved fast enough. Drilling triggered heated debate in township meetings with overflowing crowds of residents.
“There was clearly special interest involved,” Coppola said, declining to explain. “It's so transparent.”
Kendall and others deny having coordinated with gas companies or outside groups to turn residents against supervisors who were viewed as throwing up obstacles to drilling.
Robinson — a township 10 miles long and 3 miles wide, bisected by Route 22 — is surrounded by farmland. The boroughs of Midway and McDonald lie along its southern border. Census figures show the median household income is $47,361, about $5,000 below the statewide average.
Those families live atop some of the most valuable gas deposits in the Appalachian Basin, according to estimates from Texas-based Range Resources. The company has 23 active wells there, state records show.
Range estimates that under Robinson, the Marcellus, Upper Devonian and Utica shale formations combined hold more than 300 billion cubic feet of natural gas per square mile. At today's wholesale prices, that's about $1.5 billion worth of gas per square mile of the township.
Chevron, Atlas Energy and Chesapeake have active wells in Robinson, state records show, and residents say the growing Cecil company Rice Energy Inc. has expressed interest in leasing land.
“You have a lot of farmers in this town who for years have scraped by. They're living milk check to milk check,” said Duran, 29, a former combat medic who defeated Coppola in the primary. “For the first time, there were farmers in this area who could actually get ahead. ... It's very liberating.”
Yet opportunity magnified longstanding land-use disputes causing conflict in township government, the current and former supervisors said. Kendall, for example, wrangled for years with township officials about subdividing his property, among other issues, he said.
Gas leases led to debate over the role and effectiveness of township government. Kendall said his family leased more than 100 acres for gas drilling, with a bonus payment of $2,000 to $3,000 an acre. But he said drilling on his property was held up because it increasingly became more difficult and time-consuming to get permits from the township.
Range sued in county and state courts, alleging Robinson supervisors improperly delayed its permits, cases that are pending. Kendall filed complaints with state regulators, challenging township rules for drilling, and that added to legal fights challenging Act 13.
With an annual operating budget of $500,000, Robinson found itself fighting on two fronts against the commonwealth, with a budget of $29 billion, and a company with a stock market value of $13.5 billion.
“It's definitely the front lines,” said John M. Smith, former township solicitor. “It has become more divisive because the money is real and the money is now. And the impact is real and the impact is now.”
Voters change priorities
The new supervisors say voters realigned leaders to match priorities they share with many other Pennsylvanians.
A Franklin & Marshall College poll released last week found 64 percent of Pennsylvanians favor the gas-drilling industry; 27 percent who oppose it. When asked whether drilling “has improved or reduced the quality of life” in communities, 38 percent said their lives improved, 26 percent said drilling reduced the quality of life, and the rest didn't know.
More drilling means a better future, Kendall said — something that's important to his constituents.
“We're not going to shut 'em out,” said Duran, whose parents leased with Range. “We're going to get things going, to get these opportunities moving.”
Timothy Puko is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7991 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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