Common Cause wants state to limit contributions by the Marcellus shale gas industry
The state must institute campaign contribution limits to prevent undue influence on legislative decisions such as that wielded by the Marcellus shale gas industry.
That's the message sent by public interest group Common Cause in its recently released report, "Deep Drilling, Deep Pockets In Congress and Pennsylvania."
"We could have done this study on a number of industries, but Marcellus shale has been the one with kind of full employment for lobbyists over the last couple of years," said Barry Kauffman, director of Common Cause in Pennsylvania. "We thought it was one of the clearest examples of the power of political money in the development of Pennsylvania public policy."
The report says: "Among states where a fracking boom is under way, only Pennsylvania and Texas fail to limit campaign contributions, allowing the industry to pour unlimited amounts of money into the campaign coffers of its supporters."
Fracking is the process by which sand, water and chemicals are injected into the deep Marcellus shale wells to break up the shale and release the natural gas lodged there.
Environmental advocates claim the practice has the potential to pollute wells and other groundwater supplies.
Vast shale deposits in the state are believed to contain billions of cubic feet of natural gas worth billions of dollars to the industry.
The industry favors the state for that reason and, according to Common Cause, because "the state's regulatory scheme is weak; it levies no severance tax and insufficiently funds its corps of safety inspectors."
Travis Windle, spokesman for the Marcellus Shale Coalition, a group representing the industry, called those claims "absurd." He notes that former Gov. Ed Rendell said the industry had the strongest regulatory framework in the state.
"We have doubled the number of inspectors in the Commonwealth overseeing the industry," Windle said, adding that the industry financed that through the doubling of drilling permit fees.
"Our industry has generated more than $1.1 billion dollars in tax revenue in the past several years — that's from the Pennsylvania Department of Revenue," he said. "This is just a smear job from an anti-natural gas group."
Windle said the coalition does not have a political action committee (PAC) and makes no contributions to any candidates.
However, the report said that from 2001 to 2010, gas and drilling companies doled out $6.1 million to candidates, political parties and elected officials in the state. Of that amount, $3.38 million went to elected officials who still held office in May of this year. The report said almost half of that — $1.6 million — went to the campaigns of Republican Gov. Tom Corbett "whose 'no severance tax' campaign pledge made him the favorite of industry executives."
Corbett since has proposed an impact fee that would yield a maximum total of $160,000 per well over 10 years to be split among the state, county and local governments.
Yet Common Cause said that pales in comparison to Texas, where drillers pay five times as much in drilling taxes.
State Rep. Brian Ellis, R-Lyndora, is among the top 20 recipients of Marcellus shale contributions among elected officials. His district includes part of the Alle-Kiski Valley portion of Butler County.
"I'm not influenced by a campaign contributions," Ellis said, "but if you are asking if no one across the board is influenced that's unrealistic. It's unrealistic to say that nobody is influenced by money.
"The money that they give is minimal compared to the trial lawyers and the teachers unions," he said. "I've been on the record supporting an overhaul of the contributions limits and campaign reform."
"I have always supported energy development," Ellis said, "and so it's no surprise that energy companies would support me."
U.S. Rep. Jason Altmire, D-McCandless, who has received more than $65,000 from Marcellus shale-related companies since he was elected in 2006, echoed that sentiment.
"I am a supporter because it is the right thing to do for Pennsylvania," he said, noting that the industry provides jobs and low-cost energy. "It is the right thing to do for the country, and my constituents support it.
"I don't know what Common Cause expects — this industry supporting candidates that don't support them• I don't think so," Altmire said. "On this particular issue of cause and effect, I don't think it is what Common Cause is making it out to be."
"I would ask them why they question my integrity," said state Rep. Jeff Pyle, R-Ford City. "I can't be bought. That's the long and short of it."
He questions if Common Cause distinguishes the contributions between Marcellus gas companies and the companies with conventional shallow gas wells, which are all over his Armstrong County district.
"When you look at it, they are my guys, they are the people who live here," Pyle said. "I do try to make sure their employment is secured. Those who would say I am not looking out for the environment, I would ask them: Where is their proof?"
Here are the area elected officials who have received campaign contributions from companies in the Marcellus gas industry, according to Common Cause, from 2001 to 2010, although not all were in office for that entire period. Their names are followed by where they rank in terms of the industry money received within their respective bodies and the amounts received.
• Gov. Tom Corbett: No. 1 — $1.6 million
• House Speaker Mike Turzai, R-Bradford Woods: No. 4 — $79,100
• Sen. Don White, R-Indiana: No. 5 — $69,125
• Sen. Jane Orie, R-McCandless: No. 12 — $39,650
• Rep. Jeff Pyle, R-Ford City: No. 13 — $35,900
• Rep. Darryl Metcalfe, R-Cranberry: No. 14 — $33,100
• Rep. Brian Ellis, R-Lyndora: No. 19 — $23,300
• Rep. Tim Murphy, R-Upper St. Clair: No. 10 — $275,499
• Sen. Pat Toomey, R- Lehigh County: No. 28 — $160,750
• Rep. Jason Altmire, D-McCandless: No. 96 — $65,635
Public interest group Common Cause has made several recommendations to keep the influence of political financial donations in check within Pennsylvania.
• Limit contributions for General Assembly candidates to $1,000 per election cycle;
• Require electronic filing of all campaign contribution reports in a system easily accessed by the public;
• Quarterly disclosure of campaign contributions during non-election years;
• Limit gifts to public officials to no more than $100 per year and require disclosure of them.