If the PGE candidates win the election, what happens to the environment in Warren County?

Oil well by house

PGE Board of Commissioners: Oil and gas drilling in residential neighborhoods is safe and creates jobs!

The Warren County Zoning Ordinance allows conventional oil and gas drilling in residential neighborhoods. In 2016, this became an issue in North Warren, where a well was drilled in the floodplain just over 100 feet from Conewango Creek and just over 200 feet from the nearest neighbor’s house. 

The tank farm was placed alongside busy State Street within feet of a neighborhood school bus stop. Well-drilling equipment and vehicles were parked at the site for months. The well pad was covered by floodwater at least once, damming up stormwater that created unwelcome and long lasting duck ponds in at least two backyards. And on multiple occasions neighbors complained about gas and oil fumes. When an oil spill occurred, fluid-soaked refuse was left onsite in the open bed of a dump truck for weeks, fouling the air downwind.

Will more residential neighborhoods in Warren County become working oil fields?

Unfortunately, as rural oil reserves play out, untapped (or less tapped) residential areas may now be among the most desirable locations left to drill. Conveniently, when blighted houses are demolished creating gaps in residential neighborhoods, drillers may see an opportunity. Proclaiming economic benefits and increased job opportunities they will seek support from the PGE Board of Commissioners to open residential neighborhoods to the drill, and will likely find the Board extremely sympathetic. If that floodgate can be opened, it is imaginable that oil and gas companies will buy cheap houses, demolish them, and drill.

The only pesky limitation on drilling in residential neighborhoods is the state’s setback rule of 200 feet from the nearest house. But that rule is under assault. New legislation in the Pennsylvania Senate essentially eliminates the setback for conventional well drillers, a deregulation effort the PGE Board will no doubt embrace, perhaps by hiring a lobbyist to plead for the bill in Harrisburg, a concept for which there is precedent.

Senate Bill 790 is sponsored by Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati—serving (oil and gas interests in) Cameron, Clearfield (part), Clinton, Elk, Jefferson, Mckean, Potter and Tioga Counties—and also sponsored by Senator Scott Hutchinson, serving (oil and gas interests in) most of Warren County, as well as Butler (part), Clarion, Forest, and Venango Counties.

Scarnati’s and Hutchinson’s bill states: “[If] the distance restriction would deprive the owner of the oil and gas rights of the right to produce or share in the oil or gas underlying the surface tract, the well operator shall be granted a variance from the distance restriction. . . .” (Section 305 (a))

So, if SB790 becomes law, the “owner of the oil and gas rights” will have legal dominance over the property rights of those in residential neighborhoods, including, of course, the homeowner, but also the church, and the small business owners who work from their homes or in houses that have been repurposed into offices. Home owners willing to invest in remodeling will not be happy when the view from their shiny new kitchen is dominated by a pumpjack. In the hierarchy of property rights, homes may be on the surface, but home values are still far beneath oil and gas rights.

Senator Joe Scarnati is reported to have received $593,312.98 in campaign contributions from Energy and Natural Resources companies. In a 2017 article in the Bradford Era about an alleged campaign impropriety, Senator Scarnati is quoted as saying, “. . .my legislative decisions cannot and do not take contributions into account.”

Senator Scott Hutchinson has received $24,550.00 in campaign contributions from Energy and Natural Resources Companies.

In addition, SB790 would pre-empt local ordinances from preventing conventional drilling: “. . .all local ordinances purporting to regulate conventional oil and gas operations regulated by this act are superseded. The Commonwealth, by this section, preempts and supersedes the regulation of conventional oil and gas wells.” (See Section 706)

Local municipalities (like Grant Township in Indiana County) are increasingly dissatisfied with state regulations that fail to protect the clean air and pure water promised by the Pennsylvania Constitution’s Environmental Rights Amendment. Some municipalities take stands against the worst environmental excesses of the oil and gas industry by democratically passing community rights ordinances. Courts may favor pre-emption as an implied state right, but just to make sure, the Pennsylvania legislature now aggressively asserts their authority by including language in bills that further fortify pre-emption and further suppress local democracy.

Notably, this applies to the City of Warren. Listed under Prohibited Uses in the City’s Code is “Drilling of oil, gas or other minerals, except in industrial districts.” However, even if SB790 is not passed, would the City choose to defend its oil and gas drilling prohibition in court, especially if sued by an oil company with deep pockets and no moral reservations in suing cash-strapped local governments?

Unlike Grant Township, it seems unlikely the City of Warren, which has been a Home Rule Municipality since 1972, would stand on the principle of community rights. But if the City does suggest it will take a stand, the PGE Board of Commissioners could use various financial tactics—for example, dawdling to commit support for a downtown development or building renovation—to pressure the City to strike the prohibition from its Code.

And if any citizens or neighborhoods outside the City band together to propose an amendment to the County Zoning Ordinance that prohibits oil and gas drilling in residential neighborhoods or which requires increased setback distances from oil or gas wells to schools or t0 municipal water sources, expect the PGE Board of Commissioners to summarily vote down any such proposal (as the current Board did in 2017 when DEP’s Water Source Protection Plan proposed a drilling ban on land above the underground reservoir supplying all of North Warren’s municipal drinking water). Water is life, except in Warren County politics.

In this twilight era of conventional oil drilling across the counties of the Allegheny watershed, and as the remaining conventional oil and gas companies become more desperate to maintain profit flow, a PGE Board of Commissioners would predictably take exceptional measures to support the industry and increase conventional oil drilling opportunities, even if that turns neighborhoods into oil fields.

If there is ever a future proposal for an oil or gas well on the grounds of the Warren County Courthouse, expect the future PGE Board to approve it on a unanimous vote. After all, a working pumpjack in the shadow of the Courthouse clocktower will serve as a fitting symbol of the PGE Board of Commissioners.

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PGE: Principal Stakeholder of the Warren County Board of Commissioners

Two top candidates for Warren County Commissioner—if elected—plan to keep their full-time jobs with PGE. This can only happen in a County that has an environmental blind spot.

[Editor’s note: This is the second post in a series about how two top candidates for Warren County Commissioner—if elected—plan to keep their full-time jobs with Pennsylvania General Energy Company (PGE), an oil and gas company headquartered in Warren, Pennsylvania. (Read previous post.) This post will explore political palatability, while a future post will look in detail at the public ethics of simultaneously working for government and business.]

The Environmental Blindspot in Warren County Government

Among the 67 counties in Pennsylvania, Warren County ranks 55th in population. Like many counties in the upper Allegheny River watershed—Potter, McKean, Elk, Clarion, etc.—Warren County is losing population, currently estimated at 39,498, a 5.44% decline since the 2010 census. If the population does not increase by more than 5,000 before the 2020 Census, Warren County will fall from a Class 6 to a Class 7 county (in a ranking system that contains 8 classes).

In such a small population, few well-qualified and capable candidates are available to serve in local elected positions. This is one reason why the issue of two PGE candidates running for County Commissioner is so difficult. By all accounts, the PGE candidates are talented, accomplished members of the community; they have excellent experience; they mean well. Perhaps the only credential they lack is a proven commitment to the environment—a political credential that will elude them so long as they are employed by an oil and gas company.

Of course, the lack of such an environmental credential in Warren County is not a political liability. It is a plus, as is working for an oil and gas company. In the candidate forum in May, not a single question about the environment was asked, nor did any of the candidates mention the environment in their closing statements. If you bring an environmental issue to the Board of Commissioners, you will be told it is not the Board’s jurisdiction, and you will be directed to the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection. So environmental issues are a low, virtually non-existent, priority in local elections in Warren County.

Instead, like most counties struggling to make ends meet, the focus of elected officials is on economics, not ecosystems. The natural environment is either a blindspot, an annoyance, an irrelevancy, or a distant afterthought—not surprising in a county with 160-year history of drilling for oil and gas, where almost every family had (or still has) members in the oil business. So where better to nominate two oil execs to county office?

However, while the issue of electing one (or even two) PGE employees as commissioner won’t bother most voters in Warren County, the issue that does rankle them is electing a commissioner—regardless of their employer—who won’t give full-time attention to the job. On rare occasions, the interests of anti-environmental and pro-environmental voters can align, though inadvertently.

PGE’s Deal with Warren County: Civic Duty, or Self-Interest?

It is fair to the PGE candidates to note here a key point of Pennsylvania’s Public Official and Employee Ethics Act—the law that pertains to the ethical behavior of elected officials and candidates. The Act recognizes that local office holders are “citizen-officials who bring to their public office the knowledge and concerns of ordinary citizens and taxpayers” who “should not be discouraged from maintaining their contacts with their community through their occupations and professions.” [Italics added.] In short, the Ethics Act encourages local elected officials to keep their jobs. 

This statement in the Act seems an ode to Jeffersonian democracy, to the citizen-politician we all esteem—of the yeoman farmer, nurse, teacher, or small business owner who sacrifices their time and income to bring real-world experience, common sense, and thrift to public service.

On the other hand, the Act may simply state this for the much more realistic reason that for most local officials outside the populous counties, the pay is paltry. For example, supervisors of second class townships in Pennsylvania earn between $1,875 to $5,000 per year. So clearly, if most local officials at the municipal level were forced to leave their private jobs or step away from their businesses while serving in their elected positions, we would have many few candidates in township elections.

However, county commissioner is an elected position of a more elevated type even in less populous counties, one that involves significantly greater fiscal responsibility, increased bureaucratic complexity, and higher voter expectations. In recognition of these challenges and expectations, county commissioners are given a significant step-up in salary. In Warren County, where the average income is $39,973, and where the average teacher salary is $44,610, commissioners receive an annual salary of $57,178, plus a generous benefit package, including health insurance, life insurance, a retirement fund, even a dental plan. 

The taxpayers of Warren County provide their commissioners with a livable wage and desirable benefits—enough to devote full-time, selfless attention to the job. So, for the voters of Warren County, the issue of the PGE Commissioners may boil down to a simple financial calculation: Is a part-time Commissioner worth $57,178 plus benefits?

On the other hand, it is important to note that Warren County Commissioners are under no legal obligation to record and report their work hours. Nor is there a legally established minimum number of hours they must work. It is no crime to do the work part-time, though, if the recent actions of the current Board of Commissioners are any indication, it is certainly a serious performance issue that merits public shaming of any truant commissioner.

As reported in a Times Observer article on September 14, 2017, during a melodramatic public Board meeting, then Chair Cindy Morrison (Republican) was accused of not being present at the Courthouse often enough during work hours by Vice Chair Ben Kafferlin (Republican) and Commissioner Jeff Eggleston (Democrat). Commissioner Eggleston was quoted by the Times Observer as saying: “The number one thing that we were asked when we were running for office… will you be a full-time commissioner? It’s not happening,” he said, referring to Commissioner Morrison.

Since that day, one must wonder what has changed on the current Board to support party nominees—one Republican and one Democrat—vying for a seat on the next Board who will keep their full-time jobs with PGE if elected and who will, realistically, spend less-than full-time hours at the Courthouse? Why was it important enough to raise the issue in a public meeting in September 2017 and vote to demote a sitting Board Chair to Vice Chair? Why the silence now? 

This is particularly odd because the PGE candidates were the “running mates” of current commissioners Kafferlin and Eggleston during the primary election. PGE Candidate Tricia Durbin’s name appeared on campaign signs with Ben Kafferlin’s name, while PGE candidate Paul Giannini’s name appeared on campaign signs with Commissioner Jeff Eggleston’s name. Certainly, despite the concerns of voters with the issue, that was a clear endorsement of part-time commissioners by both the Republican and Democratic Parties, as well as by the two sitting commissioners for whom it was previously such a grievous issue.

Less noticed, it was also a bi-partisan endorsement of marrying county government to the oil business, which must have happened because of the environmental blindspot in Warren County political culture. Because such a marriage couldn’t be intentional. Could it?

Note: Why don’t Warren County Commissioners just voluntarily agree to officially log their hours and make that information public? That would create a record for voters to examine, especially when those commissioners seek re-election or a pay raise.

Biting off more than you can chew

Another question is just one of simple practicality, which is as applicable to the owners of PGE as it is to County taxpayers: Are there really enough hours in the work week to do both jobs well, or even adequately?

Candidate Patricia Durbin is quoted in a Times Observer article of May, 2019 saying: “I have had the pleasure of being endorsed by the CEO to give me the liberty to do what I need to do.”

That same Times Observer article reported: “[Ms. Durbin] indicated there are enough hours in the day to serve in both capacities. She said that she once. . .reported to the commissioners in Mercer and Lawrence counties where several of the commissioners at the time maintained their career while serving as a commissioner.”

Ms. Durbin does not indicate the nature of those Mercer and Lawrence County commissioners’ careers, but we know that some occupations might better accommodate such dual-employment than others. For example, self-employed persons like small business owners or farmers may have options that allow business partners or family members to assume all or most duties while the citizen-official serves. But can you imagine hourly wage workers and most salaried workers in corporate offices convincing their CEO to let them simultaneously work another full-time job that overlaps with the same day-time work hours?

The “liberty” PGE has given its employee candidates may be seen as a laudable act of community spirit that will be appreciated by many citizens of Warren County. However, for others (like the citizens and Supervisors of Grant Township in Indiana County) who will be much more dubious of PGE’s civic-mindedness, is it unreasonable to ask PGE what they will get out of such an arrangement?

Of course the PGE candidates need to be more forthcoming and thorough in statements about how they feel their dual-employment plans will work. But this is one instance where PGE itself ought to explain their interests, not for PR purposes but to simply inform voters. After all, it was PGE’s decision to approve and support the candidacies of their employees for public office and to allow those candidates (if elected) to apparently keep their full-time jobs and salaries. Not only does this make PGE a principal stakeholder of the Warren County Board of Commissioners, it gives them the added civic responsibility of government-like transparency on this issue.

If we’re going to mix oil and government, let’s at least hold it up to the light and see the sheen. 

[Editor’s note: A following post will explore the ethics of the issue, where we will learn that strict compliance with Pennsylvania’s Public Official and Employee Ethics Act does about as much to guarantee ethical behavior of elected officials as Pennsylvania’s Environmental Rights Amendment does to guarantee clean air and pure water.] 


Follow-Up Questions

The following additional questions are left to the reader to ponder or comment upon. . . .

  • How many hours per week does it take to govern a county? What if current and former commissioners agree that the job can be handled in much less than a 40-hour work week? Wouldn’t citizens and the County Salary Board then rightly ask to revisit the current salary and benefits package commissioners enjoy? 
  • If the two PGE candidates are elected, how will they divvy work time between two workplaces? How will scheduling conflicts between two high-pressure jobs be resolved? Will County meeting times be rearranged to accommodate PGE meetings and obligations? Will PGE Commissioners “phone it in,” or telework from their PGE offices? 
  • If the benefit packages offered by the County exceed those provided by PGE, will the candidates accept the County benefits and drop some or all of those received from PGE? If so, that will save PGE money? Exactly how much money might PGE save over four years (or more) if they do not have to pay for the benefits of two of their senior employees? (Might that be enough savings to fund PGE’s next lawsuit against a class 2 township trying to democratically resist an unwanted injection well?)
  • If elected, what about pay raises, bonuses, promotions, or new perks the PGE employees receive from PGE while they serve as commissioners? Will the public or political enemies attempt to connect increased compensation in their PGE job with official votes or actions? How will that improve public trust in Warren County government?

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