Those anti-drilling protestors finally found someone inside the Pennsylvania Convention Center who had their back: former Democratic Governor Ed Rendell.
After a day filled with speakers who dismissed or mocked their concerns – former Republican Governor Tom Ridge called it “phony hysteria,” and Chesapeake Energy CEO Aubrey McClendon essentially labeled them luddites – Rendell took the stage and told the room that “fractivists” had a point. “The things they’re talking about are not incorrect,” he said. “They’re raising serious and legitimate issues. They express the fears of not just a few militants, but the fears of a lot of good, hard-working Pennsylvanians. About what’s going to happen to their neighborhood. About what’s going to happen to their water supply. About what’s going to happen to their waterways. Those are things that we can’t continue to ignore.”
Rendell then proceeded to lecture the energy industry for twenty minutes.
He argued drilling companies have hurt their public image by opposing a severance tax on gas extraction, and by not taking enough steps to protect the environment. “People care about the air they breathe. They care about the water that they drink. They care about the waterways that they fish in, and they swim in,” he said. “And that’s true whether it’s in Tioga County, or the Delaware River Basin. People care very much. And the industry has not made the necessary investments to ensure a safe environment.”
He pointed to hundreds of Department of Environmental Protection violations racked up by drillers in recent months. “These violations, and this record of seeming carelessness about violations and about environmental security have created a bipartisan coalition that cuts across party lines, that cuts across geographic lines against shale drilling,” he said.
The Marcellus Shale Coalition – the hosts of the garden party that Rendell skunked all over, that is – disputed his argument. In a statement, president Kathryn Klaber said, “Pennsylvania natural gas development is dynamic, fast-moving, and strictly-regulated, and the former Governor’s attempts to rehash issues that have since been resolved is stale and outdated. As the former governor has noted [ and here she linked to a New York Times op-ed he authored in March] Pennsylvania has the strongest enforcement program of any state with gas drilling. Period.’ We agree.”
Rendell also harangued the industry for not supporting a severance tax on gas drilling, calling the companies’ refusal to embrace a levy “a great disappointment.” He argued it’s hurting their public image. “The fact that the shale companies do not pay a severance tax has become well-known by virtually every advocacy group in the commonwealth,” he said. “And it is the whipping boy for those groups.” By balking at a tax at a time when lawmakers are cutting billions of dollars from the budgets, Rendell said drillers are, “turning the tide of public opinion against [them].”
Rendell supported a severance tax during his administration, but took the issue off the table during 2009 budget negotiations, when it was gaining momentum. Republican Governor Tom Corbett has called the issue a non-starter, making it a political longshot in Harrisburg these days. The most realistic levy possible is likely a low-level impact fee, which would drive money to local governments hosting drilling rigs, and possibly to a handful of environmental cleanup efforts.
We’ve now heard from two of the three former governors slated to speak at the Shale Gas Insight conference. Both Rendell and Ridge made their own bold arguments. Will Corbett continue the trend?