Pennsylvania natural gas panel holds off on voting results

HARRISBURG - Gov. Corbett's advisory group on natural-gas drilling in the Marcellus Shale is to meet in public Friday to vote on its much-awaited recommendations on Pennsylvania's dealings with this growing industry.

The catch is that the public won't necessarily get to know what's being voted on.

That is because the governor's commission has decided that it will not detail the actual recommendations when voting on them, but instead will include those it approves in a report that is due on Corbett's desk next Friday. That report will be made public.

The recommendations are expected to include whether to impose a tax or fee on the extraction of natural gas from the Marcellus Shale.

Lt. Gov. Jim Cawley, who heads the commission, said through a spokesman Thursday that the panel was under no legal obligation to even make its meetings public, but had consistently done so over the last four months because the administration wants the process to be transparent.

Furthermore, Cawley spokesman Chad Saylor said, the commission has collected public testimony from dozens of industry experts, communities most affected by drilling activity, and about 100 members of the public, and is publishing on its website nearly 600 e-mails it has received.

And there will be discussion, possibly even debate, during next Friday's meeting in the Rachel Carson State Office Building as the panel's draft recommendations are vetted, tweaked, and voted upon.

Then why keep those recommendations secret for now?

"Because, first of all, the recommendations are still a work in progress," Saylor said, adding that Cawley also wanted commission members to feel free to offer suggestions without worrying that those, too, would go public before being vetted by the commission as a whole.

"We are trying to strike a balance," Saylor said.

The decision to shield the recommendations - about 90 are expected - sparked an immediate outcry from environmental groups. The debate over how to deal with the burgeoning drilling industry has become politically and emotionally charged even as the divide in Harrisburg deepens over whether to impose a levy on natural-gas drillers.

The discussion has become even more weighted by the realities of tough economic times and the final budget that Corbett's administration negotiated with the legislature for the fiscal year that began July 1. The budget contains deep cuts for public education and welfare but no new or increased taxes.

The 30-member commission's various recommendations are to be aired Friday by its four working groups - on Infrastructure; Public Health, Safety, and Environmental Protection; Local Impact and Emergency Response; and Economic and Workforce Development.

The recommendations that are voted up will not be binding on Corbett. But they are sure to become a touchstone for setting public policy on drilling in Pennsylvania - and not only on the question of whether to tax the industry, but also on environmental, public safety and economic development matters.

Panel member Terry Bossert, a vice president of Chief Oil & Gas L.L.C. and an environmental aide in Gov. Tom Ridge's administration, said industry and environmental representatives had worked to craft recommendations acceptable to both.

"There was a real effort to find the right balance," Bossert told the Associated Press. "I think we all tried hard to find middle ground."

Jan Jarrett, who heads the statewide environmental advocacy group PennFuture, noted that there were questions from the start about the independence of a panel on which the administration and the drilling industry were heavily represented.

The limiting of public access to the recommendations is sure to fuel perceptions in some quarters that the administration wants to shape the outcome. Corbett has steadfastly opposed a tax on natural-gas extraction, though he has left open the possibility of a so-called local-impact fee.

"It begs the question about whether the outcome is completely controlled and predetermined by the administration," Jarrett said.

Saylor, citing a report from the state Office of Open Records, said that since the panel is advisory and has no binding authority, it is not subject to the Sunshine Law.

Citizens can argue for making records public under the Right to Know Law. And Terry Mutchler, who heads the Office of Open Records, stressed that her office does not have jurisdiction over open meetings.

Mutchler said Thursday: "It seems to me incumbent on such an important body to err on the side of openness. . . . Citizens need to be at the table, not locked out of the room."

 


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