Why I Choose Not to Retaliate Against Range Resources’ Character Attacks
'I will continue to be a vocal advocate for the responsible development of natural gas drilling,' state Rep. Jesse White said.
As with any issue involving the balancing of individual property rights, environmental concerns, job creation and high economic stakes, the road to developing a fair and reasonable policy on Marcellus Shale gas drilling has been a very bumpy one, filled with potential political landmines.
As the elected representative of the communities most impacted by this industry, my approach has been to keep the focus on the important issues instead of political gamesmanship. Throughout this process, I have sought to bring the energy industry, government and the community together as partners in building a brighter future.
This has been my position, and it will continue to be my position as we all move forward together.
About three weeks ago, I was warned in a telephone conversation with Range Resources' lawyer that if I did not change my public stance on how I approach Marcellus Shale, which included asking questions about the DEP's policy of not releasing test results for heavy metal carcinogens in drinking water near drilling sites, Range would make my life very difficult and unpleasant. We saw the results this past week as Range engaged in an all-out manufactured assault on my character, aided by a reporter very eager to earn headlines by printing the stories they wanted him to tell.
In order to understand the nature of my somewhat contentious relationship with Range Resources, it is important to understand the history and evolution of the issues involving the development of Marcellus Shale and my need as an elected official to quickly respond to the changing and contradictory philosophy of Range over the years. As you will see, Marcellus Shale isn’t just one issue; it is actually many different issues, with new ones emerging every day, all of which have to be examined and addressed separately. This is why my position cannot possibly be properly summarized by a handful of old email messages carefully arranged to reach a false conclusion without any context whatsoever.
I was sworn into office in January 2007, just as the Marcellus Shale play was beginning to fully develop in Southwestern Pennsylvania. The first Marcellus well in Pennsylvania is located in my legislative district, and in the blink of an eye, I was representing an area being branded as ‘The Energy Capital of the East’.
In April 2007, I met with an executive from Great Lakes Energy Partners, which would soon-thereafter be known as Range Resources. I was promised the company would be a responsible corporate citizen as it developed this new method of gas drilling, and I made a commitment to educate myself and the public on ‘that Marcellus,’ as it quickly became known throughout my district.
In 2009, I attended a large meeting of very angry residents who had serious unanswered questions about drilling operations in their neighborhood. Staying with my theme of education, I held a public forum at Fort Cherry High School a short time later with several hundred residents in attendance. I welcomed industry participation, including Range Resources, because I wanted people to get the most complete information possible.
I quickly realized the biggest problem with educating people about the Marcellus Shale boom was the simple fact that the issues were evolving so fast, it was difficult to keep up. We were writing the history of this issue every single day, and the evolution of the issues forced me to constantly adapt my approach in dealing with both the industry and my constituents.
The days of dealing with complaints about noisy trucks and mud on local roads quickly evolved into more complex issues about environmental concerns such as air and water quality and a demand from the public for more local jobs in this developing industry. As the issues became more complex, I had no choice but to rely on companies such as Range for information, and I started to become more skeptical at the consistent claims that everyone who questioned Range was a ‘nut job’ or ‘just jealous because they aren’t getting paid’. I also found it odd that Range almost never admitted to making any mistakes, even when confronted by a constituency becoming more educated, organized and concerned every day.
By 2009, the term “Marcellus Shale” was working its way into the statewide vocabulary, and because of an aggressive public relations push by companies like Range Resources, and the industry groups they formed like the Marcellus Shale Coalition, most Pennsylvanians had their perceptions of the industry defined by the industry themselves. Lobbyists began swarming around the halls of the State Capitol in Harrisburg, and everyone everywhere wanted a piece of the action. But back home, where the drilling was taking place, the issues continued to evolve in a very unfortunate way. I was personally lobbied by Range executives to vote for a very high severance tax; Range wanted it because the tax would have been paid by my leaseholder constituents and they wanted financial stability so they could value the company with an eye towards selling it. Despite their lobbying, I voted against the severance tax because it was a bad deal for the people I represent.
Due to a 2009 State Supreme Court decision, municipalities were given limited authority to regulate certain aspects of oil and gas operations. Industry lawyers and lobbyists with pre-written ordinances in hand that were obviously extremely friendly to the drillers were suddenly approaching local township officials. Public trust had diminished to the point where the public relations spin was no longer believable to many people actually living in the drilling areas. Communities were dividing rapidly in a very ugly way.
In an attempt to bring some uniformity and consistency to neighboring communities, I drew upon my experience as a former township supervisor and formed a co-op comprised of local officials from most of the twenty-two municipalities I represent. Expressly designed to have no bias for or against drilling, the co-op sought to bring industry and local governments together to develop solutions to the rapidly escalating problems in the communities I represented.
Through discussions with Range Resources, the company undeniably driving policy on behalf of the industry, it became clear that ‘uniformity and consistency’ would only be an acceptable outcome if they got to dictate the terms. Range wouldoperate with no problems under an ordinance in one township, but deem virtually the same ordinance in the adjoining township to be totally unacceptable.
In 2010, Range adopted much more aggressive tactics with the public, and the reality of their actions deviated further and further from the rhetoric we saw on billboards and commercials everywhere. The most common tactic was to tell leaseholders the only reason Range could not drill is because local governments were trying to stop them, but the facts simply did not support these bizarre claims.
None of my municipalities attempted to ban drilling, and it became obvious that Range’s government relations staff were playing a game by telling local elected officials one thing and telling the public and the media the other. The end result of Range’s self-victimization was a perception of being persecuted that simply was not true, but managed to increase the level of distrust and friction in the community.
For me, the breaking point came when Range Resources and their midstream company, Markwest, instituted a boycott of local businesses in Mt. Pleasant Township in order to force local officials to accept the ordinance written by Range without question. It’s worth noting at this point that Mt. Pleasant didn’t have any drilling ordinance in place, so there was literally nothing stopping Range from operating there.
When I confronted them, officials from Range and MarkWest confirmed the boycott to me personally and promised to end it. Although I was in the middle of a rough election, I chose not to make political hay out of the incident because I didn’t want to escalate an already tense situation. Finally, after Range Resources packed a public meeting with hundreds of non-residents sent in tostack the crowd in their favor, I negotiated a solution with Range and Mt. Pleasant Township by bringing in a retired Federal Judge as a mediator. It is worth noting that as part of the arrangement, Range Resources point of contact with the Township was shifted from Matt Pitzarella to Range’s attorney in Texas. This was specifically requested by the municipality because Mr. Pitzarella’s actions had directly contributed to the atmosphere of distrust.
Those events fundamentally changed the way I viewed Range Resources, because I saw first-hand how they manipulated and bullied the public, the media and government officials to get what they wanted. Although many of my colleagues had no problem having an increasingly cozy relationship with Range, I knew I had to be a more vocal advocate for fairness and accountability before my communities were dividedforever.
In 2011, an intense lobbying effort led by Range Resources and aided by the new industry-friendly administration of Gov. Tom Corbett led the Legislature to pass Act 13, which would have stripped local communities of virtually all say in drilling activities. I directly asked Range to consider additional setback requirements for drilling near schools, hospitals, day care centers and senior centers but was totally ignored as they went to extraordinary lengths to secure the votes they needed in the halls of the State Capitol.
By this point I realized theindustry-prepared talking points were simply not true, so I became even more vocal in my opposition, not to drilling, but to the misguided policies so aggressively advocated by Range Resources.
I realized my advocacy would make me a lightning rod for controversy, but I honestly believed I had no choice but to speak up. By now, Range Resources was openly hostile to me, which was unfortunate but ultimately beyond my control. When I requested a positive meeting in early 2012 with Range and my local officials to discuss how Act 13 would be implemented, I received an email from a Range executive saying in no uncertain terms “Range is not interested in your outreach efforts.”
When a group of municipalities in my district joined together to challenge the local zoning provisions of Act 13, I supported their efforts while Range Resources hired lawyers to oppose them.
Despite Range’s consistent and deliberate mischaracterization of these communities (one of which I call home), a Republican-led Commonwealth Court ruled portions of Act 13 unconstitutional in July 2012. An appeal of the case is pending before the state Supreme Court, but what had originally begun as a minor and manageable distraction to Range’s strategy was now a major statewide problem, and Range made a conscious decision to turn their attention to discrediting me in a clear attempt to attack the messenger because they couldn’t defeat my message, which was a consistent commitment to responsible development of Marcellus Shale with true industry accountability. As you can see, the issues surround Marcellus Shale changed dramatically in a very short period of time. We are a long, long way from where we started back in 2007.
Range Resources, through spokesman Matt Pitzarella, finally got the media to bite on a story he has been unsuccessfully shopping for nearly a year now, falsely implying my position on Marcellus Shale was somehow related to campaign contributions. He has painted a very distorted and inaccurate picture clearly designed to discredit me, distract you and deflect everyone from the real issues impacting our futurewhen it comes to defining responsible Marcellus Shale drilling. All I will say is this: unlike some others, neither my vote, my integrity nor my conscience has been or ever will be for sale. Period. The reason Range is coming after me is because they know that unlike others, I’m a legislator who cannot be bought, and they know I’m one of the only ones asking legitimate questions they don’t want to answer.
Range’s strategy is to portray me as someone opposed to drilling, but that is absolutely false. I have never once advocated for a ban or moratorium on drilling activity. I have always endorsed a responsible, reasonable and honest approach to the benefits and challenges of developing Marcellus Shale, and any claim to the contrary is simply not true.
I have been approached by constituents, supporters and the media to respond in the same manner in which I was attacked. It did not take me long to find unreleased emails that would clearly show a history of my efforts to reach out to Range in a positive and professional way over the years (up to just a few days ago), emails with unsolicited praise from high-ranking Range Resources officials about my efforts in years past and emails which would severely embarrass Range, its employees and other elected officials.
To be honest, it is tempting to simply release those emails to defend and contradict the absurdity of the attacks as well as discredit my attackers and others who would no doubt prefer to lurk in the shadows. But after careful consideration, I have decided against taking this sort of easy retaliation against Matt Pitzarella and Range Resources. Why? Because someone has to be the grown-up here.
I have heard my constituents loud and clear; they’re tired of the petty attacks, and so am I. They want to see mature leadership, but if I respond by feeding the media frenzy and counterattacking, we will all be stuck in the mud indefinitely. I know I will continue to take a beating from some, and I’m willing to pay that price if the outcome is an end to these childish antics. We have important issues we need to address, and sinking into the mud will prevent us from being able to focus on those important issues.
It would be irresponsible for me to allow petty bickering to distract from the task before us. I choose the high road, and will continue to focus my time, effort and energy on looking out for our communities. I am ready to do the hard work necessary to address the important issues we face, and I will not be distracted. Nothing will beaccomplished by engaging in meaningless bickering, especially with so many important issues at a critical point.
- I will continue to be a vocal advocate for the responsible development of natural gas drilling.
- I will demand accountability from the natural gas industry by praising truly responsible operators and calling out those who are failing in their commitment to ensuring our safety through true best practices.
- I will continue to protect our local communities by leading the fight against laws like Act 13.
- I will ask the tough but fair questions that few elected officials are willing to ask.
- I will keep the public informed and engaged in a responsible way and will not be intimidated by attempts to limit my efforts to do so.
- I will continue to push for more jobs for Pennsylvania residents and ask those tough questions until the parking lots of job sites are filled with Pennsylvania license plates.
- I will keep the pressure on the disturbing problems at DEP and push for an independent investigation to find out what’s really going on.
- I will welcome all viewpoints to the discussion, but will not tolerate hypocrisy.
- All the while, I will remain focused and fact-based in my work but I will not let my passion be diminished or the fire in my belly extinguished.
I know who attacked me, I know why they attacked me, and I know how they want me to respond, which is why I realize I must take the high road by not retaliating in kind. Range Resources is a private company with a primary goal of making a profit; my duty as a public official is to uphold my Constitutional oath by doing what I honestly believe is right for the people I represent. All I ask is that you consider the identity of my attackers and the true motivation about the timing and lack of substance of their attack.
You have trusted me on this issue before and I am asking you to continue to trust me now; it’s the only way to move beyond this nonproductive and childish behavior. All I can promise is to do my very best to continue to balance the need for strong and vocal advocacy with the desire for a mature and responsible public discourse. I’ll continue to tell you what I’m doing, and I will not be afraid to let you know if or how Range Resources responds, because their practice of simply ignoring me (and by default all of you) as your duly elected representative is not an option.
Abraham Lincoln said, “He has a right to criticize, who has a heart to help.” While I certainly reserve the right to offer justifiable criticism, I have always been and will continue to be committed to putting aside any of my personal feelings about the past if it means making a positive impact for the future; that’s what grown-ups do in the real world.
I understand the immense economic opportunity the Marcellus Shale provides for our region, but I also understand the potential pitfalls. This is why I am often sensitive to short-sighted tactics which could jeopardize those opportunities. The only way forward is an intelligent, informed public discourse on these issues that will insure that we approach the development of the gas industry responsibly. That has been my focus, and it will remain my goal.
If Range Resources is willing to move beyond their history of divide and conquer tactics, threats and bullying to truly engage in an honest and fact-based dialogue with me and the public about issues that really matter, we will all be better off as a result. This isn’t an apology on my part, nor is it an attack; it’s an invitation to the honest, fact-based, policy-centered debate the public deserves.
I hope to welcome Range’s participation in this public debate with a renewed sense of maturity, responsibility and commitment to honest cooperation and accountability for us all.
Editor's Note: For background on some of the media stories about White, click here and here. Also, the comments on this story have been disabled, as the holiday will not enable me to moderate them appropriately as I will be out of the office. However, if you would like to write a letter to the editor, please contact me at email@example.com. White can be reached here.