In a surprising and politically controversial move, Gov. Ed Rendell has nominated longtime environmentalist John Hanger as secretary of the state Department of Environmental Protection.
Mr. Hanger, 51, of Dauphin County, has for the last decade been president and chief executive officer of Citizens for Pennsylvania's Future, a statewide environmental advocacy group with a recent focus on energy. From 1993 to 1998, he was a member of Pennsylvania's Public Utility Commission who sometimes clashed with some of the same state legislators who will vote on confirming his nomination.
"John Hanger has been at the forefront of nearly all environmental policy discussions in Pennsylvania for the past two decades," said Mr. Rendell at a news conference yesterday in Harrisburg.
"He has been working to keep our energy costs down and increase our access to clean, renewable fuels for our cars and energy for our homes in one way or another since 1988."
The governor praised Mr. Hanger as instrumental in helping to shape many of the state's environmental policy discussions while leading PennFuture, including the Alternative Energy Portfolio Standard Act of 2004, the Governor's Growing Greener II initiative in 2005, Pennsylvania's clean vehicles program, and recently signed legislation creating alternative energy and alternative fuels investment funds.
Prior to his work on the PUC, Mr. Hanger was at Community Legal Services Inc. of Philadelphia, serving as a public advocate representing 500,000 natural gas, water and sewer utility customers.
A graduate of Duke University and the University of Pennsylvania School of Law, he is considered an expert on public utility regulation and competition.
Mr. Rendell said Mr. Hanger will play a critical role in balancing the state's energy needs with conservation efforts, including recommending alternative energy projects to fund through a $350 million bond issue recently approved by the Legislature.
He also will be assigned to manage the state's efforts to mitigate energy costs to consumers when utility rate caps expire next year, and will oversee deep natural gas exploration and drilling while protecting the state's waterways, Mr. Rendell said.
"His reputation as one of the state's leading environmental voices and his experience and relationships here in Harrisburg with legislators, stakeholders and the administration will prove to be a valuable asset as we work to make a better, cleaner and healthier Pennsylvania for our 12.4 million residents," Mr. Rendell said. "I urge the Senate to act promptly and confirm his nomination."
But some in the Capitol called Mr. Hanger "polarizing" and "unconfirmable," and his nomination surprised both environmentalists and those in the industries the DEP regulates.
"With John Hanger's strong background on energy issues through his work on the PUC and with PennFuture, we will expect energy to be front and center during his tenure as DEP secretary," said Jeff Schmidt, the Sierra Club's lobbyist in Harrisburg.
Stephen Rhodes, president of the Pennsylvania Oil and Gas Association, which represents and lobbies for the industry, said he's known Mr. Hanger for a long time and hopes he will address deep well drilling issues involving the potentially lucrative Marcellus Shales formations quickly.
"He's a straight shooter, very forthright," Mr. Rhodes said. "But we have some significant permitting issues ahead."
Mr. Rendell acknowledged that Mr. Hanger has had run-ins with some senators, notably Mary Jo White, R-Venango, chairwoman of the Environmental Resources and Energy Committee, which will hold a hearing on the nominee.
"When I would disagree with him, instead of making logical arguments to change my mind, he would say I was in the pocket of the polluters, that I take money from polluters and that's why I vote this way," Ms. White said after learning of the nomination. "That doesn't get a dialogue going. It's offensive. ... You can say I'm wrong or you can say I'm stupid, but don't say I'm corrupt.
"He's a very intelligent guy; I just don't know if he's somebody we can work with."
Mr. Rendell said Mr. Hanger is "a pragmatist who recognizes the economic opportunities we can gain while protecting our natural resources," and emphasized he is committed to having Mr. Hanger serve in the Cabinet post even if he is not confirmed by the Senate. At their discretion, governors can appoint acting secretaries to serve indefinite terms.
Mr. Hanger will replace Kathleen McGinty, who led the DEP for almost six years before her resignation last month. His salary will be $136,120.
Mr. Hanger, who attended the news conference, said later that he anticipates finding common ground with Ms. White despite past disagreements over energy policy.
"I've known Sen. White for a number of years. I knew her when I served on the Public Utility Commission and we had a very, very good relationship. At that point in time our sources of disagreement were few and far between," he said. "It's important to work together where we can ... and try to narrow our differences."