Two years ago, Governor Tom Wolf reportedly told a group of pro-drilling landowners and elected officials he would try to help them end a moratorium on natural gas development in the Delaware River Basin, if they helped him pass a severance tax on drillers, according to several people who attended the meeting.
Such a position would be an about-face for the Democrat, who ran for office saying he would uphold the de-facto drilling moratorium that’s been in place in the basin since 2010. It has blocked Marcellus Shale development in Wayne and Pike counties. The Delaware River Basin Commission- which has been politically gridlocked for years– manages water in the basin and includes the states of New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, and the federal government. The Delaware provides drinking water to more than 15 million people in those four states.
Wolf’s spokesman, J.J. Abbott says he has no reason to believe the governor made any such offer, and that he’s been consistent on his positions. The commission is meeting Wednesday to consider moving forward with a permanent ban on natural gas development.
“Governor Wolf is currently reviewing the Delaware River Basin Commission’s draft resolution,” Abbott writes in an email. “The governor has noted that any decision regarding the future of this shared resource must be made in concert with the other DRBC members.”
But members of the pro-drilling group, the Northern Wayne Property Owners Alliance, say Wolf was willing to discuss opening up the basin to drilling. Betty Sutliff says she and others, including the Wayne County Commissioners, met with Wolf in Harrisburg on June 8, 2015. As Sutliff recalls, the governor proposed a deal.
“If we would help him promote the severance tax, then he would help us open up the basin to drilling. He initiated the idea. It almost felt like a bribe,” she says. “I’m not used to playing politics like, ‘I’ll wash your back, you wash mine.’”
Wayne County Commissioner Bryan Smith (R) also remembers Wolf making the offer– but says he wasn’t bothered by the governor presenting it as a deal.
“I didn’t take issue with it. I’ve dealt with a lot of people on a lot of things,” says Smith. “I understand the parameters of what he goes through as a governor. He has a base. It would be nice if there was something he could do to help us. He seems to be a reasonable man when it comes to business.”
Enacting a severance tax on the natural gas industry was one of Wolf’s top campaign pledges, and he has not yet achieved it.
“I thought it was a backdoor deal. The fact he even mentioned it surprised me,” says Bob Rutledge, who was also in the meeting and serves as vice president of the Wayne/Pike Farm Bureau.
“But it was a non-issue, because I was not supportive of the severance tax,” he adds.
Rep. Jonathan Fritz (R-Wayne) who was a county commissioner at the time, has a similar recollection.
“It was disappointing,” he says of the meeting with Wolf. “We have folks that are being deprived of economic opportunity. The governor supports drilling in 65 of 67 counties. He can find it justifiable to deny two counties that same opportunity?”
A few days after the meeting, Sutliff sent Wolf a thank you note summarizing what she felt were the key points of discussion.
“We need to explore the benefits a severance tax would provide to all Pennsylvanians,” Sutliff wrote, “as long as all Pennsylvanians, including those who are located within the DRBC, are guaranteed the right to develop their minerals.”
Members of the Northern Wayne Property Owners Alliance say they never attempted to promote a severance tax on the gas industry.
“We realized that was a nonstarter in our district,” says Fritz. “That would go over like a lead balloon.”