What does the news that ExxonMobil has bought two more Marcellus shale drillers mean for Pennsylvania?
For environmentalists, it's yet another sign that the heavies are taking an increasing interest in the state's gas desposits. And that means that when citizens seek to protect water supplies, for example ... these companies are poised to blow them out of the water.
You might have thought that Marcellus drillers had plenty of influence already, given the seven-digit sums the industry contributed to Gov. Tom Corbett and other pols last year. But that's chump change compared to what a big hitter like Exxon can do when it decides to put its mind to it.
Concern about the growing role of these big players is mounting. Last year, oil giant Chevron reached a deal to acquire another big player in the Marcellus, Atlas Energy. And alarm bells went off about what that means for environmental reforms:
With 43 lobbyists and a federal influence-peddling budget of at least $35 million this past election cycle, Chevron must have an ambitious agenda for the politicians in Washington, DC. The company just paid $4.3 billion to acquire Atlas Energy and its extensive holdings in Pennsylvania's Marcellus Shale so first and foremost on the company's agenda will be fighting any efforts to have the federal government regulate hydraulic fracturing.
On the hit list is a bill backed by Pennsylvania's own Robert Casey -- the Fracturing Responsibility and Awareness of Chemicals Act (FRAC Act, to its friends). That bill is an attempt to close the "Halliburton Loophole," whereby gas drillers are exempted from federal regulations requiring full disclosure of the chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing.
Exxon Mobil doesn't lack for lobbying muscle either. Since 2009, the company has spent roughly $40 million on lobbying -- and the FRAC Act was one of the items on its agenda. (Exxon Mobil already had natural-gas holdings; in 2009 it bought another driller, XTO Energy. By that point, Exxon was reportedly cautious enough about anti-fracking concerns to build an escape clause in the deal should stringent regulations be put in place.) That's not including the big-dollar campaign contributions from company sources -- recipients of which include our very own Pat Toomey and a mostly Republican cast of House reps.
Nor are Exxon or Chevron shy about throwing their weight around on the state level. In Colorado, for example, both those companies contributed a reported $1 million each to oppose a 2008 statewide referendum levying a severance tax on natural gas. In all, energy companies gave upwards of $10 million, joining with labor groups and other backers to drastically outspend supporters of the new tax. The referendum was defeated by a whopping 58-42 margin.
By contrast, look at last year's contributions from the firms Exxon and Chevron have acquired. According to Marcellus Money, a contribution-tracking site operated by Common Cause and Conservation Voters of Pennsylvania, Atlas Energy gave a piddling $5,500. Mere pikers! The firms Exxon bought -- Philips Resources of Warrendale and TWP of Butler -- don't even show up on the list.
Chevron, whose acquisition of Atlas was announced just days after the November election, made no contributions in state election contests. Exxon contributed $10,000, but it has more skin in the game now.
So if you though big-money donations from gas drillers were a problem in 2010, hold on. You haven't seen anything yet.
ADDED: And if you want to speak out about Exxon -- specifically its unearthly power to avoid any sort of equitable taxation -- today's your chance. This afternoon, a "March for Corporate Accountability" will commence in Market Square, Downtown, cross the Mon, and end up at an Exxon station near Station Square. And temperatures are only gonna be in the low 80s today!
I love Mel Packer!