Chamber officials lobby to keep shale costs low
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HARRISBURG -- Chamber of Commerce officials have begun a new effort to lobby officials in Pennsylvania and other states not to increase energy firms' costs for drilling and piping natural gas from underground Marcellus Shale.
Chamber officials from Washington and Harrisburg say they will spend millions of dollars on the new "advocacy and education" campaign, as they called it.
It's aimed at persuading Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia and other states with underground shale gas deposits not to hurt the fast-growing natural gas industry by enacting costly new taxes or environmental regulations.
The Institute for 21st Century Energy, an arm of the U.S. Chamber, held a news conference here Thursday to announce a partnership with its state affiliate, the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry, on the advocacy effort, called "Shale Works for US."
"Pennsylvania is already a leader in shale gas production," which has created thousands of direct and indirect jobs and will generate many millions in revenue for state and local governments, said Energy Institute president Karen Harbert.
"Pennsylvanians all across the state are benefitting from shale energy development," she said, making Pennsylvania a national leader in energy production -- as it was in the late 1800s, when coal mining and steel making started up.
Chamber of Business and Industry president Gene Barr said, "There is a lot of education that needs to be done [among the public and politicians]. You can call it advocacy or lobbying, but I use the word education."
He praised Gov. Tom Corbett and the Legislature for not enacting a "punitive" tax on extracted natural gas, as some Democrats and environmentalists had urged. After weeks of debate, the Legislature decided not to enact a tax for gas removed from the ground and to establish statewide oversight of zoning for drilling projects, but the oversight is facing a legal challenge from a group of local municipalities.
One company profiting from the shale gas boom is E.J. Breneman Co. of Berks County, which is building many roads in drilling areas, including Western and Northern Pennsylvania and Ohio. Company official Michael Polak told reporters he's added 50 workers in two years and his workforce is now up to 140.
He also has bought 30 new pickup trucks from local dealers and has converted his company's asphalt plants so they operate using natural gas.
Ms. Harbert said that with Marcellus Shale gas deposits present in three-fourths of the state, natural gas is quickly becoming a major source of energy that will reduce American dependence on foreign oil. She doesn't want states to overregulate the young industry with restrictive financial or environmental laws.
Ms. Harbert didn't have an exact figure on the cost of the lobbying effort, but said it would be in the millions of dollars, especially as it spreads to more states. She said the national chamber has 3 million members who will be asked to help fund it.
She said the campaign will include "extensive grass-roots recruitment, advertising and educational outreach to businesses and community groups."
State Rep. Greg Vitali, D-Delaware County, has been a critic of some aspects of natural gas drilling and unsuccessfully pushed for a 6 percent tax on sales of natural gas. He said the small fee the state now imposes on the companies isn't enough.
He said legislators have getting phone calls and emails for months from another trade group, the Marcellus Shale Coalition, based in the Pittsburgh area. "They've had an incessant lobbying campaign," he said, adding he isn't sure why this new one is needed.
"Those who lobby [for natural gas] tend to overstate the benefits and understate the costs," he said.
"Look, I accept the reality that shale development is happening. There are certainly benefits from it. It's displacing coal-fired power plants, giving an environmental benefit of fewer CO2 emissions and other air pollutants."
But there also are negatives to natural gas drilling that legislators must consider, he added.
"It also can result in air pollution and water pollution, it's a high user of water and it disrupts the landscape," he said. "We have to make sure it's done in the right manner and in the right places -- not in state forests and not on college campuses and with the proper setback from water supplies."
Some drilling is now going on in state forests, but the Legislature hasn't passed a bill yet allowing campuses to keep money generated from drilling.
First Published July 23, 2012 12:00 am