State Rep. Greg Vitali, D-166 of Haverford, held a news conference Friday to highlight what he believes is the effect of lobbying money from the Marcellus Shale industry on legislators, claiming that it prevents “good public policy” from being enacted.
“People who give money to politicians are not philanthropists,” said Vitali, quoting Clarence Bell, the lare Republican state senator from Upland.
Vitali claims that large amounts of money given to politicians by the natural gas industry — some $883,181 in 2016 — has prevented the passage of bills to require drillers to pay a severance tax, conventional drilling regulations, renewable energy expansion and for oversight to landowners who lease property for gas wells.
“I do think the system is rigged when you consider the influence of the drilling industry,” said Vitali. “It is certainly not a level playing field.”
The natural gas industry spent $7.3 million in lobbying expenses in 2016 in Pennsylvania and $62.6 million since 2007, he said, citing research that was partially done by Common Cause and Conservation Voters of Pennsylvania.
Most of the money from the gas industry has flowed to Republicans in the GOP-controlled Legislature, with House Speaker Mike Turzai receiving some $78,200 in contributions. In the Senate, President Pro Temp. Joseph Scarnati received $51,500 in contributions, Vitali said, citing required campaign reports.
“The money goes, frankly, to those people who have the control of legislation,” Vitali said. And much of it is “under the radar” because of lax campaign finance rules and an antiquated state campaign finance website, he said. Vitali said that he’s working to change both.
Pennsylvania is one of 11 states that do not have limits on campaign contributions from individuals and political action committees, he said. Vitali is also cosponsoring a bill to ban legislators from receiving gifts from lobbyists, he said. At the moment, contributions now have a reporting threshold of $250 for gifts and $650 for transportation, lodging and hospitality each year. While the natural gas companies listed $79,743 for gifts, hospitality, transportation and lodging in 2016, no legislators were listed as recipients, Vitali said. And, out of 253 legislators, only five reported receiving gifts and other favors from the drilling industry in 2015, while $69,977 was reported on those items by the industry in that year, he said.
Meanwhile, the state Department of Revenue calculated that a 6.5 percent severance tax would provide $350.9 million for 2016-17. The impact fee now in place will send an estimated $197.5 million to local communities impacted by drilling, preservation and reclamation of surface and underground water supplies, career training, affordable housing, emergency preparedness, recreation, conservation and agriculture preservation, according to the state officials.
However, Vitali said that the state has lost more than $1 billion in possible revenue since 2011-12 without that tax. That is taking “money out of taxpayer’s pockets,” he said.
The commonwealth is also the only major gas-producing state without a severance tax, he said. Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, is also calling for a severance tax in his proposed 2017-18 budget, as he has since taking office.
“My major thesis it the Marcellus Shale industry had way too much influence over the Pennsylvania Legislature (resulting in bad policy),” he said. “I think the public needs to be aware of it.”
However, an industry group spokeswoman disagreed.
“We’re not particularly surprised by Rep. Vitali’s efforts today aimed at generating a few headlines,” said Erica Clayton Wright, with the Marcellus Shale Coalition, an industry group, in a statement. “He’s always been a harsh critic of the tens of thousands of hardworking men and women across Pennsylvania’s natural gas industry. While this anti-natural gas activist has raised a number of highly suggestive and inflammatory questions, the facts are as clear his motives. Our organization provides critical, fact-based information to key stakeholders and the general public, regarding safe, job-creating natural gas development. Accordingly, we follow the letter of the law and are abundantly transparent about our educational and advocacy efforts.”
The state House Marcellus Shale policy committee estimated that by 2020 the natural gas industry will have generated an $18.8 billion total economic impact in Pennsylvania. In 2012, the industry employed 62,417 Pennsylvania workers, paying more than $5 billion in wages with an average salary of $83,000 a year. That same year natural gas companies were responsible for more than $3.5 billion in state and local revenue, the committee reported.