Brian O'Neill: Duels over environment are key in governor's race

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John Hanger, one of seven people trying for the Democratic nomination for governor, says he'd be way more protective of our environment than Gov. Tom Corbett.

That's the kind of thing you say when you're trying to take another guy's job, but no one should doubt Mr. Hanger's hands-on philosophy is the polar opposite of Mr. Corbett's approach, which often seems to begin and end with his dictum: Energy = jobs.

I called Mr. Hanger in the wake of a report that Freedom Industries, which fouled the drinking water of 300,000 people with a chemical spill in West Virginia, was shipping the same stuff to Western Pennsylvania.

West Virginia environmental officials ordered the company to remove the coal processing solvent, whose shorthand name is MCHM, from its Charleston facility, where the spill occurred, and Freedom didn't have enough double-walled tanks to store it all at its Nitro facility without violating state requirements. So Freedom has been selling to out-of-state customers, as it has done for years.

My phone call to Freedom brought no comment Friday, but Mr. Corbett's office emailed to say the Department of Environmental Protection was in contact with Rosebud Mining, the Armstrong County recipient of 3,500 gallons of the chemical (less than a highway tanker might carry). That sort of DEP communication is not unusual and Pennsylvania's storage regulations are stronger than West Virginia's, according to Patrick Henderson, the governor's energy executive.

They'd almost have to be. But Mr. Hanger argues that what the governor says publicly also matters. The fundamental difference between Democrats and Republicans, he said, is that Democrats believe government has an essential role, and Republicans bash environmental regulations.

He'd govern differently. Mr. Hanger would not stop Marcellus Shale drilling, but he thinks it's undertaxed -- even compared to West Virginia. Mr. Hanger, who led the DEP under former Gov. Ed Rendell, also wrote the moratorium on oil and gas leases on state forest lands that Mr. Corbett seeks to lift.

This should be one of the fundamental questions of the gubernatorial campaign no matter whom the Democrats nominate: How do we manage the gas boom? Mr. Corbett has been extraordinarily accommodating, fearing that drillers could depart if Pennsylvania isn't careful. Never mind that we sit astride the largest natural gas field outside of Iran.

"It's exactly because the gas is here that they can go wherever they want,'' Mr. Corbett said in 2012. "Because the gas can't go anywhere. It's the technology that is movable, and the technology is moving to where the best environment is to get the gas -- and to make a buck.''

Mr. Hanger's response: "The governor is clueless about the energy business.''

It's going to go back and forth between Democrats and the governor from now until November. Mr. Henderson emailed a 10-page list of increased environmental standards imposed during the Corbett administration.

Mr. Henderson also said proponents of a severance tax like those in other states "conveniently overlook" a laundry list of other Pennsylvania taxes. The total take in all state taxes on the industry since 2008 is $2.7 billion, some $600 million through a local impact fee that the governor got behind, Mr. Henderson said. Gov. Rendell couldn't get a severance tax done, so that local impact fee is all new money, he said.

Mr. Hanger counters that the severance tax was blocked by the GOP-majority Senate, and the rest of Mr. Henderson's tax accounting is "just garbage."

Energy companies constantly tell investors that Pennsylvania gas fields are the most profitable in the country, Mr. Hanger said, and that wouldn't change if Pennsylvania had a tax closer to the industry standard. It's not just that our geologic resource is highly productive, Pennsylvania is also blessed by geography. We're essentially the buckle on the frost belt between Boston and Chicago, and all those thermostats feed on natural gas.

"They will stop drilling every other place in the country before they stop here,'' Mr. Hanger said. "They're not chumps in West Virginia [which has a severance tax]. What does that tell you?"

Brian O'Neill: or 412-263-1947.

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