Natural gas industry spent heavily on Pennsylvania Republican candidates

Posted: November 04, 2010

On the day Pennsylvanians elected Republican Tom Corbett governor, his campaign logged four donations.

Two came from individuals, a third from the state Republican Party. The fourth, campaign reports show, was $1,000 from the natural-gas driller Range Resources.

For a candidate who raised nearly $30 million, that $1,000 from the Texas company was a drop in the bucket. But it underscored the role the natural-gas industry played, even at the closing moments, in an election critical to its future.

The gas firms, their employees, or others who stand to gain as Marcellus Shale drilling expands put more than $500,000 into Pennsylvania candidates' coffers since September, state reports show. Much of the money came in donations of five figures or greater; most of it went to Republicans; and all of it was legal in a state with no contribution limits.

At the same time, drillers' lobbyists spent hundreds of thousands trying to shape the debate as lawmakers in Harrisburg weighed new taxes and regulations.

For them, the season could not have had a better ending. First, Gov. Rendell and legislators failed to reach a promised deal on a natural-gas tax. Then Republicans captured the General Assembly and governor's office.

Corbett has pledged not to impose any new taxes, making it unlikely drillers will face anything close to the 5 percent tax on gas revenues Rendell once proposed.

The industry had backed Corbett from the outset, giving his campaign $835,000 through mid-October, according to an analysis by the watchdog group Common Cause. As the race entered its last week, Corbett took in nearly $200,000 more from drilling interests.

That included a $100,000 check from Lance Shaner, the newly appointed chief executive officer of Rex Energy, which has permits for 57 wells and more pending. Also on the list was $15,000 from Michael Radler, an executive at Chief Oil & Gas, which has nearly 200 permits and which had already given Corbett's campaign $53,000.

In addition, $50,000 came from Kentucky businessman Richard Corman, whose rail company serves drilling sites.

Christine Torretti, chief executive at S.W. Jack Drilling, chipped in $4,997, upping to $250,000 her two-year total to the state GOP and its top nominee. That included covering about $15,000 in air fare and hotels for Corbett's campaign.

And on Monday, Corbett collected $10,000 from Frac Tech Solutions, a Cisco, Texas, firm specializing in hydraulic fracturing, the process of retrieving gas from the shale.

Bill Hicks, general counsel for Frac Tech, said there was nothing significant about the donation's timing. He said the company employs 100 people in Pennsylvania and has had projects here since 2007.

"We believe Tom Corbett would work to encourage further development of the Marcellus Shale in a sensible way," Hicks said Wednesday.

Corbett wasn't the only beneficiary of such largesse. Senate President Pro Tem Joseph Scarnati (R., Jefferson), a key figure in the tax stalemate with Rendell, accepted more than $100,000 between June and October from individuals or groups with ties to energy companies, his campaign reported.

Scarnati doesn't face reelection for two years. He passed much of the money to Republican candidates who needed it.

That meant $50,000 each to Jim Cawley, the Bucks County commissioner who was Corbett's running mate and is now lieutenant governor-elect, and Sen. Bob Mensch (R., Montgomery), who was fighting to keep the seat he won in a special election last year. And $10,000 to buy video services for Kris Vanderman, who lost a GOP Senate bid in Washington County.

Scarnati's campaign also gave $280,000 to the Senate Republican Campaign Committee. Scarnati's top aide, Drew Crompton, said there was nothing improper about the GOP leader's passing his contributions to other campaign committees.

He also dismissed as "totally reprehensible" any suggestion that the gas donations bought influence or access. Crompton said Scarnati worked hard toward brokering a severance tax when some in the industry wanted no tax at all.

"He had every intention of getting the package done by Oct. 1," Crompton said Wednesday. "It wasn't like we were just talking about a tax."

Beyond the campaign contributions, drillers increased their lobbying efforts in Harrisburg. An early glimpse at lobbying reports due this week shows that energy concerns spent more than $2.1 million lobbying in the quarter than ended Oct. 1.

The Marcellus Shale Coalition - whose 130 members include drillers, contractors, engineers, law firms, and others - spent $305,000 on lobbying between July and October. That was more than all but two of the 1,015 lobbyists whose reports were released this week.

Kathryn Klaber, the coalition president, said only about a quarter of lobbying involved direct contact with legislators. Much of the rest was spent explaining and promoting the industry in the communities where it's taking root.

"Community outreach and education is a critical investment for our industry, which is on pace to create 88,000 jobs by the end of the year," she said.

Jan Jarrett, head of the conservation group PennFuture, which had been pressing for a severance tax, stopped short of saying drilling-industry supporters bought the outcomes they wanted this year.

But she said limitless contributions can have "a corrosive influence" on state politics.

Jarrett said most people can't compete with a donor who can write a $100,000 check to a single lawmaker. That donor could be promoting good government, she said, "or could be expecting something in return, if only to get quick and easy access to that decision-maker."


Contact staff writer John P. Martin at 610-313-8120 or jmartin@phillynews.com.

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