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Friday, April 12, 2013

Natural-gas issue flaring up in mayoral race?

Posted By on Fri, Apr 12, 2013 at 5:52 PM

Now that I think of it, it's sort of amazing this issue hasn't come up in the mayoral race until now. But a lingering controversy has flared up -- arr, arr -- over natural-gas drilling in the Marcellus Shale.

Yesterday, anti-drilling "fracktivists" started buzzing about a $1,000-a-head fundraiser for mayoral candidate Jack Wagner next week -- a fundraiser involving "members of the MARCELLUS SHALE COMMUNITY."

Reached by phone late this afternoon, Wagner acknowledged the fundraiser was taking place next week, though he said the event is "not specifically or only for the natural-gas industry. There are a number of people who are energy-related that are having a fundraiser for me." Asked who, specifically, from the "Marcellus community" would be involved in the event, Wagner said, "I'm not even sure precisely, but it's people involved in the energy community in general." He said his roster of supporters included CONSOL, a coal producer with natural-gas interests, but also US Steel, whose own bottom line has been improved by sales of steel pipe used for drilling.

"US Steel is supporting my candidacy because they think I'm good for business," Wagner said. "And it's important to note that none of this pipe is being utilized in the city of Pittsburgh."

Which raises a question. Pittsburgh has an outright drilling ban on its books, thanks to a 2010 measure passed unanimously by City Council over the objections of Mayor Luke Ravenstahl. Does Wagner support the ban?

"No one wants to drill in the city of Pittsburgh," he said. "That's a message I have heard consistently for years. And I am an advocate of supporting that." As much as "the issue has been bandied about," he says, "I've never heard of anyone who wants to drill in the city."

"I'm being very clear on what I'm saying," he added, "because I know there's a whole bunch of people trying to put me in a position I'm not in. There is no interest in drilling in the city, and I support that."

Indeed, while some drilling leases have been signed within city limits, gas developers have shown little interest in following through. The best proof may be that no one has filed a legal challenge to the city's ban: In municipalities where gas companies have sought to drill, gas companies have proven quite willing to press their legal claims.

But I wasn't sure what Wagner meant when he said he "supports" the reality that no one is interested in drilling. The question, after all, is where he'd stand if someone was interested in drilling. Wagner and I went back and forth on this a few times, during which period he bridled against hypothetical questions. The exchange ended with me asking, "If a bill came before you, as mayor, saying, 'We are repealing the citywide ban on drilling,' would you sign it or veto it or what?"

"I know of no interest of anyone in introducing such a bill," Wagner said.

So there you have it. Or not.

In any case, gas drillers have supported Wagner in the past. A 2010 study by the watchdog group Common Cause reported that Wagner was the state's 10th-largest recipient of campaign contributions from drilling interests between 2001 and 2010. Even so, his nearly $45,000 lagged well behind the sums reaped by Gov. Tom Corbett, and also trailed former Allegheny County Executive Dan Onorato, who bested Wagner in the 2010 Democratic gubernatorial primary. Wagner's stance on drilling in 2010 also positioned him in the middle-of-the-road: He favored a steeper severance tax than Corbett pursued, but not too high: "perhaps the average of other states' tax rates." And he pledged to balance environmental protection and economic opportunity.

That's still his message today. While Wagner told me he was "a strong advocate of a green environment," he added that drilling was taking place around the region. "And I'm a strong advocate of training programs for our young people to have opportunities [from that]. I'm sick and tired of seeing Texas and Oklahoma license plates, and the jobs related to our region going outside of Pennsylvania."

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