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Monday, July 25, 2011

Shields alleges "significant political pressure" to kill drilling-ban referendum

Posted By on Mon, Jul 25, 2011 at 10:55 AM

City councilor Doug Shields, who is seeking a public referendum on banning natural-gas drilling in city limits, is alleging that civic leaders are pressuring council to kill the measure. Among those leaders: Democratic county executive candidate Rich Fitzgerald, and two members of the city's financial oversight board.

Council is set to debate the referendum measure this Wednesday. Voting in favor of the bill  would give city voters a chance to amend the Home Rule Charter this November, outlawing natural-gas drilling in Pittsburgh. If passed, the referendum would reinforce a drilling ban  already passed by council last year. 

But late Friday afternoon, Shields sent an e-mail to reporters arguing that  councilors were being pressured to keep the measure off the November ballot. The e-mail reads in part:

For those of you that have been asking. Yes, it is true. Rich Fitzgerald, candidate for County Executive and recipient of significant contributions from Shale Gas industry, Dennis Yablonsky, CEO of the Allegheny Conference, Barbra McNees, ICA oversight board Chair and Member Rich Stinizzo, are putting significant political pressure on Council members to vote "NO" on legislation to place a referendum question on the November ballot amending the City Charter to ban gas drilling in the city. The ICA lobbying is completely inappropriate. That is neither their role nor their mandate in the affairs of the city.

The Council unanimously enacted an ordinance to do the very same last November 16th. The vote on the Charter question comes up this Wednesday.

All of this is being done at the direction of the Shale Gas industry. Publicly, shale gas industry spokes persons say, "who cares, we aren't drilling in the city anyway." Privately they seem to be singing a different song ...

Mr. Fitzgerald and his Shale Gas industry backroom friends want us to vote for him yet he doesn’t want the public to be allowed vote for themselves, for their health, for their safety and welfare. I put this question to Mr. Fitzgerald: What city neighborhood would you like to begin drilling operations in? 

Fitzgerald's county exec camaign, you may recall, stepped on a landmine when it turned out Fitzgerald was hitting up gas-industry execs for contributions -- even as he faulted his Democratic rival, Mark Patrick Flaherty, for being too tight with the business. (Shields' e-mail also revists that issue, blasting statements Fitzgerald made about Shields wife, also a gas-drilling opponent, in an e-mail to execs.)

But reached by phone this morning, Fitzgerald denies having "backroom friends" in the industry.  "I have asked the industry for support -- as people know -- but I've gotten very little," he says. And while Fitzgerald acknowledges opposing the ban, he says that's not a position being dictated by gas-industry execs. 

"My position on drilling is pretty clear," he points out: As his campaign website asserts, he favors imposing environmental regulations that allow drilling, subject to various environmental and infrastructure protections. 

Fitzgerald acknowledges that "I've seen a few council members, and I've told them I didn't think it was a good idea." But he denies that this constituted "political pressure ... My position on drilling is pretty clear."

Fitzgerald says he opposes a referendum partly as a "philosophical issue": He believes "even controversial decisions" should be made by elected officials. But he also says that a ban "sends a signal. And it hurts us when it comes to having a gas company headquartered Downtown. The big companies like Chevron are buying up smaller companies."

Fitzgerald Fitzgerald also reiterates that "there isn't going to be drilling in Pittsburgh for decades ... No gas company has told me, 'We really want to drill in Bloomfield.'"

City councilor Patrick Dowd, for one, acknowledges talking to Fitzgerald about the issue, but says the discussions were "informational -- about what was going on with the legislation."

"I know what his position his," says Dowd. "I don't need him to tell me."

Dowd -- who says he is currently undecided about putting the referendum on the ballot -- also says he's discussed the bill with McNees. That happened "at a ribbon-cutting for a natural-gas filling station in my district last week," he says.

Dowd said he and McNees talked generally about the growing impact of natural gas on the local economy, and that McNees did discuss some "technical concerns" about how the referendum would work. But "I don't think it was an inappropriate conversation," Dowd says. "It wasn't like 'You should vote no, or I'll put the screws to the city.'" In fact, he says, "This was the first conversation I've had with [an ICA member] about drilling. And they've had months and months to apply pressure if that's what they wanted to do." 

More on this story as further events warrant.

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