Old debate over taxing Marcellus Shale getting new life

 State Sen. Vincent Hughes (D-Phila.) is proposing a five percent severance tax on shale gas to help the city's struggling public schools (Katie Colaneri/WHYY)

State Sen. Vincent Hughes (D-Phila.) is proposing a five percent severance tax on shale gas to help the city's struggling public schools (Katie Colaneri/WHYY)

A Republican state representative from Bucks County has introduced legislation to create a severance tax on shale gas.

Democrats running to unseat Governor Tom Corbett are also calling for a tax. Last week, a report by the state’s Independent Financial Office found Pennsylvania has one of the lowest effective tax rates compared to other gas drilling states.

Thursday, State Sen. Vincent Hughes (D-Philadelphia) joined the chorus, calling for a five percent severance tax on natural gas.

At a rally outside the Philadelphia School District offices, Hughes said the tax would generate about $720 million in the first year, of which $375 million would go to the state’s public schools.

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“We have a very difficult budget problem that’s going on right now,” Hughes said. “We have to find resources from some places and all circumstances are coming together to try to get this done.”

Attempts to pass a severance tax stalled under the Rendell administration in 2010. However, Hughes believes emphasizing the need for more education funding will convince Republicans and Democrats across Pennsylvania when state budget talks get serious in June.

But boosters of natural gas development are pushing back. Marcellus Shale Coalition spokesman Steve Forde says the industry trade group is organizing a grassroots campaign to get citizens involved.

“Anything that adds additional costs and additional burdens to the ability to safety and responsibly develop natural gas here in Pennsylvania means fewer benefits for communities across the Commonwealth,” said Forde.

Governor Tom Corbett supports the state’s existing impact fee system which has generated $400 million since 2012 and sends sixty percent of the money back to communities that host the drilling. Hughes’ proposal calls for a severance tax on top of the impact fee.

“The door will never be closed on any of these policy issues, per se,” said Patrick Henderson, Corbett’s Energy Executive.

Henderson believes critics aren’t looking at the big picture, which also includes the number of jobs natural gas drilling has brought to Pennsylvania, as well as lower energy prices.

“We need an honest discussion of whether Pennsylvanians are receiving cumulatively the benefits they deserve from natural gas development,” Henderson said.

Drillers will make their 2013 impact fees payments to the state Public Utility Commission by April 1.

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