HARRISBURG -- A new commission stacked with energy executives and campaign contributors -- including one with a history of environmental violations -- has been tasked to ensure land and water are protected as they help grow the gas drilling industry in Pennsylvania.
Gov. Tom Corbett on Tuesday created the Marcellus Shale Advisory Commission, and assigned its 30 members to figure out how to balance job creation with environmental protection.
If the composition of the commission is any indication, the scales will tip toward job creation. The group includes 13 people with ties to the gas industry and only four environmentalists. The others are state and local government officials and a geologist.
Thirteen of the members contributed a total of $557,000 to Mr. Corbett's political campaigns since 2008; 12 have ties with companies whose executives or political action committees contributed another $562,000; one is the son of a $300,000 contributor. All together that amounted to just over $1.4 million.
"No one should be surprised by the composition of the Marcellus Shale Advisory Commission," said state Rep. Camille "Bud" George, D-Clearfield. "Yes, there are members appointed who will stand tall for responsible environmental protections. However, I think the panel is overwhelmingly tilted in favor of the industry and for the governor who appointed them."
One member -- Acting Secretary of Community and Economic Development C. Alan Walker -- has a track record of environmental problems at mines operated by three of his companies in Clearfield and Centre counties.
A decade ago, he notified the state that his companies were selling off assets and could no longer afford treat polluted water flowing from 15 inactive mines into streams that feed the Susquehanna River.
The Department of Environmental Protection responded by seeking -- and winning -- a court injunction requiring treatment to continue at the mines.
A year later, Mr. Walker signed a consent decree requiring him to fund a multimillion-dollar trust to ensure proper cleanup of acid drainage from those mines, which already had been the subject of numerous DEP compliance orders and violation orders
Other companies in similar circumstances had made similar arrangements to ensure mine drainage is treated, according to a 2002 DEP press release.
The DEP's then-secretary David E. Hess wrote about the injunction in a 2002 e-mail message to his staff.
"We have to take strong action against some folks who just don't get it when it comes to fulfilling their environmental obligations. And that's exactly what happened this week to a mine operator who told us he wasn't going to spend a dime treating over 173 million gallons of polluted mine water," Mr. Hess wrote. "It's unfortunate with all the discussion nationally about corporate irresponsibility that we have a homegrown environmental example right here in Pennsylvania."
It wasn't the first time concerns had been raised about environmental problems on Mr. Walker's properties.
In 2001, he tried to sell 4,700 acres of land in Clearfield county to the Pennsylvania National Guard.
The $4.4 million sale fell through when contamination from acid mine drainage came to light, but Mr. Walker was allowed to keep $326,000 in earnest money.
Mr. Walker did not respond to requests for comment Friday.
Mr. Walker was the first cabinet member Mr. Corbett selected. In the governor's budget plan, he also was given the unusual authority to place permit applications on the fast track when job creation is involved.
Some are concerned that such broad authority could lead to trampling over environmental regulations.
That's one area the commission may study as it aims to attract drillers to the Marcellus Shale while finding ways to ameliorate the environmental impact of chemicals introduced into the ground to break up rock containing gas deposits.
"We're hoping to provide the governor with a blueprint for which we can finally have a comprehensive plan for maximizing the potential of this economic development engine, while still being good stewards of the environment," said Lt. Gov. Jim Cawley, who will lead the commission of 30.
Senate Republicans put together a similar group of industry, environmental and local officials last year, in order to gather ideas during discussion of a severance tax. Senate President Pro Tem Joe Scarnati, R-Jefferson, said his caucus will be sharing their findings with the commission members.
One item clearly not on the panel's agenda will be reviewing the need for a severance tax or impact fee on drillers: "I think the governor made it very clear today that no means no," Mr. Cawley said Tuesday.
A push for such a fee will continue from Senate Republicans, said Mr. Scarnati.
"I would trust that as this issue and this commission goes forward, more light will clearly indicate that an impact fee will make a lot of sense," said Mr. Scarnati, adding that he would like to see a package of drilling legislation that covers "local needs, safety measures, and environmental protections."
Mr. Scarnati, however, also said he sees good reason for including a variety of company executives on the commission.
"There are very different opinions within the industry on all the items," he said. "Within all those industry folks, there's different size companies, some in-state, others out-of-state."
But drilling opponents, like Sen. Daylin Leach, D-Montgomery, said he's skeptical of the report that will be produced.
"A cynical person would say this is just a way to delay as the industry runs rough-shod," Mr. Leach said. "It's not a balanced panel. I don't sense in this administration any enthusiasm for regulating any industry."
Chad Saylor, communication director for Mr. Cawley, said the commission likely will hold its first meeting before the end of the month. An exact date has not yet been set.
The commission will have 120 days from that date to report back to the governor.