Democratic gubernatorial hopeful Dan Onorato charged Wednesday that his Republican rival's opposition to a severance tax on natural gas drilling is evidence that he's more interested in helping the industry than forcing it to pay for environmental problems.
"Tom Corbett sees only one side of the issue, and that's the industry side," Onorato said, citing state regulators' recent reports that they have issued 1,500 citations for drilling violations since 2008 and that about half of the 74 companies drilling on the Marcellus Shale formation missed an Aug. 15 deadline for reporting their wells' production.
"Tom Corbett thinks these drillers should be allowed to police themselves," he said at a Capitol news conference. "Tom Corbett thinks the taxpayers should foot the bill to clean up and protect the environment. I think the drillers should pay for it."
Corbett's campaign spokesman responded that the GOP nominee views the Marcellus Shale drilling rush as an engine for generating construction and other economic activity, not as a direct source of revenue.
"You can't tax your way to prosperity on this," said the spokesman, Kevin Harley. "If the tax is too high, then (the drilling companies) won't be here."
Corbett would create a panel of industry officials, environmentalists and representatives of state and local governments to act as a sounding board on issues related to drilling, Harley said.
Corbett, the state attorney general, has said he opposes any new tax on the extraction of natural gas, despite the rapid escalation of drilling in the lucrative Marcellus Shale region, but that he favors continuing to collect royalties that the state receives from drilling on state forest lands.
Onorato, the elected chief executive of Allegheny County, proposes a new tax that would generate enough money to restore funding for environmental enforcement that has been cut in recent years; maintain municipal water, road and sewer systems affected by the drilling; and preserve open space.
The Legislature plans to consider a Marcellus Shale tax when it convenes later this month, before the Nov. 2 election. Gov. Ed Rendell, a Democrat, is counting on $70 million of that revenue to help balance this year's state budget.
If that tax happens, Harley declined to speculate about how Corbett would respond if he's elected governor.
"That's a hypothetical," Harley said. "He thinks the Legislature should not pass a severance tax."
Onorato said he has no problem with the Legislature passing the tax before the next governor takes office, but that he would seek changes if the law allows Marcellus Shale tax revenue to be spent on activities besides those he has identified.
"They should be here doing their job," he said. "So whatever they do in the fall — both before and after the election — they should do what they believe is right to deal with the budget issue."