For the third time in as many years, $150,000 has been slipped into the state budget for “independent research” on Marcellus Shale issues. It’s intended for an industry-backed nonprofit called the Shale Alliance for Energy Research (SAFER PA).
As StateImpact Pennsylvania previously reported, SAFER PA received a $150,000 earmark two years ago to do Marcellus research for the state Department of Environmental Protection. This time the money is being funneled through the Department of Community and Economic Development (DCED).
In each instance, the sum was buried in the fiscal code, a companion piece of legislation to the budget. The Commonwealth Foundation, a conservative think-tank, recently flagged it as part of long list of earmarks.
“The fiscal code contains millions in earmarks described in language vague enough to stump any detective,” says James Paul, a senior policy analyst at the foundation. “When it comes to the use of public dollars, Pennsylvanians deserve more than a big question mark.”
SAFER PA is based in Pittsburgh. Its board has three representatives from Pennsylvania universities and five members from the oil and gas industry. Its president, Patrick Findle, also heads the Pittsburgh office of the Gas Technology Institute, a nonprofit that does research for gas companies. He was previously the research committee vice chair of the industry group, the Marcellus Shale Coalition. Another SAFER PA board member, Gary Slagel, chairs the Pennsylvania Independent Oil and Gas Association. Both trade groups have fought the state’s efforts to strengthen drilling regulations.
Neither Findle nor Slagel responded to requests to comment for this story.
House GOP spokesman Steve Miskin describes SAFER PA as a research program focused on shale development.
“They have put together water well handbooks, training courses, studies,” he said in an email.
However, SAFER PA had never published any research until it began receiving taxpayer money through the fiscal code in 2013. The following year then-Governor Tom Corbett, a Republican, line-item vetoed millions from the fiscal code, including $150,000 for “independent research” on natural gas drilling. His budget secretary criticized the bill as “pockmarked with earmarks” from the legislature.
But with its 2013 fiscal code money in the form of a sole source grant from DEP, SAFER PA finally published a report on waste last summer which recommends expanding controversial practices like using deep injection wells, which have been linked to man-made earthquakes, and recycling drill cuttings rather than using landfills.
This year $150,000 reappeared in fiscal code for, “independent research by a not-for-profit entity which partners with higher education institutions, to identify, characterize and manage issues related to the economic and environmental impact of Pennsylvania Marcellus Shale development.”
Governor Tom Wolf, a Democrat, recently allowed the fiscal code to become law, without his signature– ending a 10-month-long budget impasse with the Republican-led legislature. His spokesman, Jeff Sheridan, says Wolf does not agree with “various aspects” of the bill, but neither he nor DCED spokespeople would say whether the money would again go directly to SAFER PA or be awarded on a competitive basis.