Eight Democratic candidates for Pennsylvania governor sought to out-green one another last night at a debate focused on environmental sustainability.
Some candidates promised not to take any campaign money from the natural gas industry. Others swore they’d put a moratorium on drilling in areas of the Marcellus Shale. And, of course, they blasted the incumbent, Republican Gov. Tom Corbett.
Corbett was invited to, but did not attend, the event, which was held at Philadelphia’s Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University and moderated by WHYY-FM senior reporter Dave Davies.
Overall, there was very little disagreement on policy matters. The candidates sought to distinguish themselves based on their electability, doggedness and individual style.
Rob McCord, the state’s treasurer, employed his sense of humor and touted various programs he has supported while in office, such as incentives to help Pennsylvania universities lower their utility costs.
He panned “Act 13,” a law signed by Corbett that set statewide gas drilling rules and limited the ability of local governments to regulate drilling. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court recently ruled that parts of the legislation are unconstitutional.
“Gov. Corbett’s the first governor out of five to walk away from the moral obligation to increase environmental protections,” said McCord. “We must respect local municipalities’ rights.”
U.S. Rep. Allyson Schwartz played the role of the polished presumptive fronrunner. She highlighted her plan to tax the natural gas industry based on how much gas it draws out of the ground, at a rate of 5 percent. Gas companies currently pay a flat fee per well drilled.
“We have a failed governor, particularly in terms of the Marcellus Shale,” Schwartz said. “He’s simply been giving our natural gas away to the energy companies. That’s unacceptable.”
John Hanger, a former secretary of the state’s Department of Environmental Protection, said that he would be the most effective champion for green causes because he has been working on environmental issues for almost three decades.
“Talk is cheap,” he said. “My career shows that I acted and won big things. I’ve got a climate action plan written. Got a Republican Senate to pass it.”
Kathleen “Katie” McGinty, also a former secretary of the state’s Department of Environmental Protection, promoted her time working with President Bill Clinton, Sen. Al Gore and Gov. Ed Rendell on environmental matters.
When she headed the environmental protection department, “We were number one in the preservation of open space and farmland,” McGinty said. “Even tough issues, like taking on the issue of toxic mercury pollution, we fought for that. We brought people together.”
Tom Wolf, a York County businessman financing his own campaign, utilized personal experiences to prove that he could compromise and take on complicated environmental issues. He said the state needs to do a better job of using energy.
“As a private business owner, I have actually spent time making my buildings more energy efficient,” he said. “This actually works, and I’m not sure why this governor has not pursued more actively than he has.”
One of the few times Monday that some candidates diverged was when they were asked if the state should set a moratorium on all new drilling permits.
Max Myers, a small-business owner and pastor, answered yes. Lebanon County Commissioner Jo Ellen Litz said she did not support a moratorium, arguing, “If there are people that are doing it right, they should be allowed to do business.” McCord, Hanger, McGinty and Wolf said they back a drilling moratorium on public lands such as state parks and forests. Schwartz and Allentown Mayor Ed Pawlowski took it a step further and said they back a suspension in the Delaware River Basin as well as on public lands.
Throughout the debate, a group of anti-fracking activists displayed large protest signs and shouted at the candidates, urging them to support a moratorium.
It’s unclear if the eight-person Democratic pool will thin out before the May 20 primary.