I never thought I’d see a governor as in love with an industry as former Gov. Edward G. Rendell was with gaming — until current Gov. Tom “I Don’t Give a Frack” Corbett got sworn in and entered the political equivalent of a shotgun wedding with the natural gas industry.
Corbett got huge contributions from the industry in his run for governor. Despite a massive budget deficit, he’s refused to tax the industry, even though, according to media reports, some industry representatives said they would be open to a severance tax.
Those types of political/policy issues come up all the time when new governors are sworn in.
But the item that’s really pushed a lot of people over the edge was the recent news that the Department of Environmental Protection is requiring inspectors to have the DEP’s secretary, Michael Krancer, sign off on any notice of a violation related to Marcellus Shale natural gas drilling. Prior to that, inspectors could issue citations without having to get prior approval from the head honchos at the DEP.
One source well-versed in Pennsylvania political influence told me there’s only one reason for such a policy move. It’s to protect favored people from enforcement. Other lawyers I spoke to said there’s a second reason: to discourage inspectors from even trying to issue citations. Why? Because who wants the boss reviewing every single decision they make? A policy like that can quickly have a chilling effect.
The condemnation of the policy change was swift and well-deserved. Editorials from around the state blasted the move. There’s talk in the legislature of an investigation. It looks bad and smells bad.
After the public outcry, according to media reports, the DEP said the policy change was a “pilot project.” According to the most recent Pittsburgh Post-Gazette articles I’ve seen, Corbett hasn’t answered questions about whether he supports the policy or had a hand in it.
Not that it matters. Because at this point, nobody is going to believe that his answers wouldn’t be “yes and hell yes.”
There are good reasons to be concerned about the environment in the wake of a booming industry and lots of drilling. Scars from old coal mines are still evident in Pennsylvania.
My first job out of college was as a police reporter in Butte, Mont. At one time, work in the copper mines went day and night and Butte was one of the largest cities west of the Mississippi. By the time I got there the mines had been shut down and the town was the site of the largest Superfund site in the country.
I remember getting off the plane and thinking there was more grass in the parking lot at Veterans Stadium than there was in Butte. I still have a postcard I keep on a corkboard. Everywhere you look the land is tan, ripped, grooved and ugly. In the middle of the postcard is a picture of the Berkley Pit, a former open copper pit mine, now filled with toxic water. Townsfolk talked of whole flocks of Canada geese landing on it and dying, their insides burned out. At Superfund meetings they talked about lead poisoning in the dust that blew around town.
What I learned in Butte is that you don’t have to be a tree-hugger to have concerns about things like the Marcellus Shale. It’s not unreasonable to want some oversight and regulations to protect the environment, and diligent and prompt enforcement when regulations are broken.
Quite frankly, I’m surprised that Krancer would sign off on something that reeks so badly of political favoritism. I got to know Krancer a little bit when he ran for state Supreme Court in 2007, and he impressed me and other members of my staff with his intellect and his candidness, as well as his approachability.
In the wake of the dust-up, I went back and looked at our interviews with Krancer and his answers to a questionnaire we sent to all the Supreme Court candidates in the spring of 2007. What struck me was how thoughtful and scholarly his answers were and how attuned he was to the appearance problems that judges run into when they ignore perceptions and possible conflicts.
For instance, when the subject of the Supreme Court deciding politically sensitive cases without written opinions came up, Krancer told a reporter for The Legal : “The public needs to know the reasons for a decision especially when it’s a politically sensitive one.”
When we asked in our questionnaire about meetings between members of the judiciary and the other branches of government or public perceptions of the courts or recusal, Krancer repeatedly talked about the importance of transparency and not bowing to the pressures of other branches of government.
Our view of him at the time was: “Wow, he gets it.”
See why I’m disappointed now?
The policy change was reportedly announced in an e-mail that was later leaked to the press. If that hadn’t happened, how would the public have known of the change? Following his own logic as a Supreme Court candidate, if Krancer was going to make a big change like that, it should have been announced to the public and the reasons articulated.
He didn’t do that, and given what I known about him, I can’t understand why. At least one politically connected Republican I talked to described Krancer as a stand-up guy, but assumed he was buying into Corbett’s party line on the shale.
Maybe the public outcry caught his attention. I hope it has.
When we asked him in our questionnaire about whom judges answer to, Krancer wrote: “I have always viewed that in my job as a judge I am accountable to all the citizens of Pennsylvania, whom I regard as my bosses. I have always said and I have always believed that I am a public servant who has 12.5 million bosses.”
Well, a good portion of your bosses have spoken up, and they’re not happy.
Krancer should do the right thing and kill the policy now. I know he’s smart and I know he understands public perception. What he needs to do is apply those qualities to the situation and not just do damage control. He needs to be open and address the concerns that many citizens have about the environmental impact the Marcellus Shale drilling is going to have on Pennsylvania’s environment. He should address how DEP is going to ensure that Pennsylvania’s environment is protected and not just with words, but with a plan of action. You can have regulation and oversight without being hostile to business and industry.
I suspect candidate Krancer would take issue with how DEP chief Krancer has handled this mess. •
Hank Grezlak is the editor-in-chief of The Legal Intelligencer. He may be contacted at 215-557-2486, or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.