HARRISBURG -- Stung by a gas well blowout in Clearfield County and the likelihood of legislators slapping a new tax on underground natural gas, Marcellus Shale drillers have added a heavy hitter to their lineup -- former Gov. Tom Ridge.
The Marcellus Shale Coalition, which includes most of the natural gas drilling companies in the state, announced Friday that Mr. Ridge will become a "strategic adviser" working for their interests.
His duties and compensation weren't given, but Kathryn Klaber, coalition president, said the ex-governor will stress "our industry's commitment to environmental and work-force safety [and] the positive and overwhelming economic benefits that responsible shale gas development continues to generate across the region."
Mr. Ridge, who resigned as governor in 2001 to become U.S. homeland security director, said the thousands of deep underground wells being drilled in areas of Marcellus Shale will produce much energy and many jobs, bringing "environmental and economic benefit" and "forever strengthening our homeland security."
Mr. Ridge joins a parade of former state officials who are working for the natural gas industry. Three members of Gov. Ed Rendell's administration have left in recent months: K. Scott Roy, the executive deputy chief of staff for the governor; Barbara Sexton, a deputy secretary in the Department of Environmental Protection; and Sarah Battisti, another deputy chief of staff.
Mr. Roy is working for Range Resources Corp., based in Texas; Ms. Sexton for Chesapeake Energy Corp. of Oklahoma; and Ms. Battisti for BG Group, a British gas company. The gas industry has also contributed generously to many legislative leaders in the General Assembly, which helps guarantee an ear for their concerns.
As for Mr. Ridge, it isn't known if part of his job will be improving the drillers' image, which took a hit when a well blowout in Clearfield County in early June spewed 35,000 gallons of chemical-laden "fracking fluid" into the air for 16 hours. The DEP fined two companies $400,000 for careless work practices for that incident.
Mr. Ridge could also be involved in September, when legislators return here and work resumes on details of a new tax on the natural gas pumped from the underground shale.
Rep. David Levdansky, D-Forward, wants a tax of 35 cents per thousand cubic feet of gas pumped out, which he said would raise $250 million a year. Under his plan, half of that would go to the state general fund (to cushion the loss of federal stimulus funds next year) and the other half split among environmental groups, municipalities, the state Fish and Boat Commission and others.
There are other tax plans that aren't so onerous to the industry. Drillers said that if the tax is too high, it could cause firms to go to other states and cost jobs in Pennsylvania.
"I view the hiring of Gov. Ridge as a recognition by the drilling industry that there is a serious, bipartisan effort to get this tax enacted in the fall," Mr. Levdansky said. "They want someone to build relationships between the different stakeholders involved."
Franklin & Marshall pollster G. Terry Madonna said hiring Mr. Ridge "isn't a game changer" that will make everything go the industry's way.
"Big players give you access [to the legislative process] and Ridge brings stature and prestige," Mr. Madonna said. But with environmental groups and citizens concerned about water pollution and damage to forests, and municipal and state officials needing additional revenue, "There will be a natural gas tax at some point," he said. "The question is, when and how much of a tax?"
Bureau Chief Tom Barnes: firstname.lastname@example.org or 1-717-787-4254.