Election showed fracking's key role in region
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Right up to Election Day, Peters residents were receiving sleek fliers in the mail encouraging them to vote against a referendum to ban gas drilling in the Washington County community.
The mailers weren't coming from local opposition, but from Houston-based industry group Consumer Energy Alliance.
On Tuesday, the Peters referendum was defeated, and Rich Fitzgerald was elected county executive in neighboring Allegheny County.
On Wednesday, the Consumer Energy Alliance named a director for its new Pennsylvania chapter: Mike Mikus, who ran Mr. Fitzgerald's campaign.
This past week's election offered a preview of a Pennsylvania political landscape where money from outside the state is flowing into the most local of local races, where officials pass through the revolving door of political and industry jobs, and where a billion-dollar industry and grassroots activists are mobilizing to turn every race into a with-us-or-against-us choice.
As drilling for natural gas increases in the large Marcellus Shale formation that underlies much of Pennsylvania as well as portions of neighboring states, the issue has become more and more tied into politics and efforts to gain influence with both politicians and constituents.
Mr. Mikus said his new job involves "no lobbying whatsoever" of Mr. Fitzgerald or any other politician. "We focus at the grassroots level, trying to educate citizens to see behind a lot of the misconceptions about energy."
Also working to educate people is Marcellus at the Polls, an anti-drilling group, which compiled a list of "fractivist friendly" candidates for last week's election.
The multi-national corporations moving into the Marcellus region -- firms such as ExxonMobil or Chevron -- have long dedicated millions of dollars to lobbying efforts. Range Resources and EQT Corp., two of Pennsylvania's most active drillers, each have a lobbyist in Harrisburg.
If drilling is a possible cure for empty campaign coffers, then the question for politicians becomes: "Are you willing to take the medicine?" said Joseph DiSarro, chairman of the political science department at Washington & Jefferson College. As communities split over the issues, politicians must weigh the financial benefits against the potential drawback of being tied to the industry.
Indeed, the trickiness of energy policy can be seen everywhere from Washington, D.C. -- where President Barack Obama has delayed judgment on the controversial Keystone XL pipeline until after 2012 -- to Washington County, where residents are questioning whether lease-holding commissioners can fairly rule on local ordinances restricting drilling.
Two out of three referenda proposing gas drilling bans that were on municipal ballots in Pennsylvania failed to win a majority vote Tuesday, with the only successful ban coming from State College. The Peters referendum was shot down, 5,196 to 1,105, according to unofficial results.
But whether the lopsided results in Peters were the result of the Consumer Energy Alliance effort or a reflection of residents worried about usurped property rights, one thing is clear: Campaigns like this aren't going away.
In many cases, multi-national conglomerates are fighting a war of words with volunteer groups that organize in living rooms.
"Energy companies engaging in political situations -- that happens so systematically in places like Texas," said Michael Webber, the associate director of the Center for International Energy and Environmental Policy at the University of Texas. For Pennsylvania, it's not so familiar. In addition, since the technology that has allowed horizontal drilling with hydraulic fracturing -- fracking -- to become widespread is relatively new, its lobbyists aren't as entrenched as those of other industries.
The natural gas industry was the "bastard stepchild of some oil companies for so long," he said, and now that companies concentrate exclusively on gas, the lobbying effort has some growing pains.
"They're not as good at politics as the oil guys, who aren't as good as the coal guys, who aren't as good as the corn guys," said Mr. Webber.
The gas industry still hasn't wooed federal regulators like their coal brethren, he said, and the resistance from community groups has turned local races into charged, wedge-issue debates.
Similarly, the anti-drilling fractivist movement is relatively young. With this election, it began in earnest the work of recruiting candidates, demanding positions on shale development and mobilizing a loud grassroots effort over the Web.
Unlike other groups challenging the political status quo, such as the Tea Party, fracktivists are decidedly nonpartisan; their only issue is drilling, and their only stance is being against it.
In addition to Pennsylvania, Marcellus at the Polls counts members in Ohio, New York and West Virginia. On Tuesday, the group compiled lists of "fractivist friendly" candidates that ranged from Kathryn Boockvar on the Commonwealth Court to Michael Bagdes-Canning, a write-in candidate for Cherry Valley Borough Council in Butler County.
Of Pennsylvania's 42 "fractivist friendly" candidates on the list complied by Marcellus at the Poll, 32 won on Tuesday's ballot. That included Corey O'Connor, a Democrat who won a seat on City Council (and submitted a statement on shale drilling at the group's request).
Like Mr. O'Connor, Allen Uhler won his first race for elected office, besting an incumbent by 63 votes for the Upper Burrell Township supervisor seat.
Mr. Uhler, a Democrat, works in security technology, but ran a door-knocking, shoe-leather campaign inspired by the need to "preserve the natural beauty and rural nature of the community" -- and to slow down shale drilling.
His family is planning a surprise party to celebrate the win this weekend, and then the work begins. Mr. Uhler said he'll enroll in classes with the Pennsylvania Association of Township Supervisors to learn about all of the non-drilling issues that might come up.
Fractivists are looking ahead to future elections.
"As the night was dwindling down on Tuesday, we were thinking about 2012," said Gloria Forouzan, co-administrator of the group.
"What excites us is then every state rep is up for reelection."
Marcellus at the Polls members are already eyeing places like the 15th district in central Pennsylvania, where State Sen. Jeffrey Piccola has said he's not seeking reelection.
"There we don't have an incumbent to deal with," said Ms. Forouzan, who works in the office of fractivist-approved Pittsburgh City Councilman Doug Shields.
Putting fractivist candidates up for election also could fill the chambers with more women, since women make up the "bulwark" of the activist network, said Ms. Forouzan.
First Published November 13, 2011 12:00 am