Patrick Henderson: Corbett's point man on energy

Posted: July 24, 2011

HARRISBURG - You won't see him pontificating on television, primping for photo ops, or jostling for center stage at news conferences.

Yet Patrick Henderson may just be one of the most powerful people in Harrisburg you don't know about.

At 37, Henderson is Gov. Corbett's "energy executive" and top adviser driving policy on the emotionally and politically charged issue of drilling for natural gas in the Marcellus Shale.

He was, by all accounts, the brains behind the governor's task force on the issue, and the author of whole swaths of the 136-page report that the panel issued Friday - a document that's sure to set the tone in the Capitol for the ongoing debate on drilling and its impact.

Those who know him almost invariably use the same adjectives to describe him: Smart. Cautious. Detail-oriented. Thorough. Conservative.

The latter is not a label Henderson runs away from. In fact, his politics might be the most public thing about him: The license plate of his Nissan Altima says GWBUSH.

But a question being debated by anyone even tangentially involved in the myriad political, economic, and environmental issues arising from Marcellus Shale drilling is this: When it comes to those issues, will his politics lead him to err on the side of protecting the environment, or helping the industry?

"I really don't think it's an either/or proposition," Henderson, whose salary is $105,000, said in an interview. "I think you can protect the environment and our natural resources while also growing jobs and growing the economy."

He added: "One thing I've learned is it's important to be at the table. Because if you are at the table, you are in a position to improve a policy or a regulation and make it better than it would have been had you not been involved."

It is a lesson, he said, he learned from his former boss, State Sen. Mary Jo White (R., Venango), the no-nonsense, tough-as-nails, fiscally conservative chair of the Senate Environmental Resources and Energy Committee. Henderson, youngest of six children who grew up on a 90-acre farm in north-central Pennsylvania, was fresh out of Bloomsburg University when he hired on with White in 1996.

He quickly rose to become her top aide and the committee's executive director, and soon established himself in Harrisburg as the go-to person on all things energy.

There was no magic to his method. He read voraciously to become an expert on issues, and followed almost every e-mail, report, or newsletter emanating from the environmental community. He was not someone who was caught unawares.

He and White swiftly became a forceful team - she in the forefront, he in the background. Their reputation was that they were staunchly conservative but played fair.

"The door was always open," remembered David Masur, executive director of the advocacy group PennEnvironment. "We disagreed, but it was always civil and on the substance. He'd always hear you out."

That's not to say Henderson, along with White, didn't wade into controversy. During the eight years of Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell's administration, White's office frequently clashed with Rendell over critical pieces of environmental policy. It was not uncommon to hear a top Rendell staffer privately complain that the administration's agenda was being held hostage by Henderson and White.

There were disputes over Rendell's picks to lead the Department of Environmental Protection - Kathleen McGinty and later John Hanger (White voted "no" on both) - and epic fights over cleaner car emissions standards and lower power-plant mercury emissions.

Much of that was driven by White, an outspoken believer in limited government interference in industry. But Henderson shared her philosophy and advocated hard for it.

"He is a true believer in very conservative Republican philosophies," says Jan Jarrett, who heads PennFuture, an environmental group with which Henderson has chilly relations. "And that motivates his worldview and the way he thinks about policy. . . . It was a rare occasion that we were on the same side of an issue."

In an interview, White said labeling her or Henderson "antienvironment" was an absurdity usually propagated by people who didn't live in areas that rely on industries such as coal or natural gas for jobs.

"Some say Pennsylvania is two big cities with a lot of trees in between," the legislator said. "Well, there are a lot of people out in those trees who have to make a living. And it can be done properly and respectfully.

"Is it going to have some impact on the environment? Absolutely," she said. "It's about balance, and I think Patrick has got it right."

"You can be a hard-core conservative and still seek middle ground," said Drew Crompton, chief counsel to Senate President Joe Scarnati (R., Jefferson), who has worked with Henderson over the years. "He is not a guy who is on the fringe. He will work a compromise whenever he can."

That goes for drilling in the shale, Henderson argued.

Like his new boss, Corbett, Henderson contends that taxing the extraction of gas from the shale is bad public policy - a stance that has drawn a target on the administration's back. Corbett's critics, and even some supporters, cannot understand why he won't tap an industry making hundreds of millions to raise desperately needed dollars for the state in difficult budget times.

Henderson offers perhaps the most articulate and forceful defense to date of the unpopular position.

"Asking, 'Why don't you support a tax?' is the wrong question," he said. "The question should always be, 'Why do you support a tax?' The burden should always be on government to demonstrate why a tax is appropriate. It should never be on the taxpayer - be it an industry, be it a homeowner, or a small-business owner."

He said he believed there was a middle ground, one he helped map in the report issued Friday by the governor's advisory panel: a local impact fee that would mainly raise money for communities where drilling is ongoing. (The report is online at http://tinyurl.com/ShaleReport)

That stance, too, has been berated by critics. And Corbett has not said whether he would support such a fee - just that any drilling tax was sure to trigger his first veto.

His energy czar thinks history will vindicate this stance.

"The governor is looking out five, 10, 15 years from now as far as what this industry can do for the state," Henderson said. "And I think that he believes that time will validate that position - as do I."


Contact staff writer Angela Couloumbis at 717-787-5934 or acouloumbis@phillynews.com.

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