HARRISUBURG — Six Democrats running for lieutenant governor of Pennsylvania clashed during a debate Saturday in front of the party’s liberal activists over whether the state should stop, at least temporarily, drilling in the Marcellus Shale natural gas formation.
It was the first time many of the party’s most active organizers got a chance to see Jay Paterno, the son of the former Penn State football coach, as a candidate for lieutenant governor, a largely ceremonial position that has occasionally catapulted its holder into the governor’s office.
The hour-long debate, at the Pennsylvania Progressive Summit in Harrisburg, was more like a forum, where agreement and imprecise answers were the rule and disagreement and precise responses were rare. Candidates were not pointedly asked for their positions on hot-button issues such as abortion rights and gun rights, and in any case, the views of the candidate are of limited importance since they run on the ticket of the gubernatorial nominee in the general election after running against each other in the primary.
To underscore the limited importance of the office, Lt. Gov. Jim Cawley’s name did not come up, but Gov. Tom Corbett’s name, and attacks on his policies, were in practically every response the candidates had to the five questions they were asked.
“What we have to think about is, ‘how do we win in November?’” former U.S. Rep. Mark Critz, of Johnstown, told the crowd. “The point of being lieutenant governor is you’re a tool in the toolbox. It’s the governor’s agenda, it’s the governor’s ideology. How do you move the governor forward? … This is not about May. This is about November.”
The primary election is May 20; the general election is Nov. 4. Corbett and Cawley are running for re-election as the endorsed candidates of the Republican Party and are unlikely to face a strong primary challenge.
On the question of drilling, the candidates were asked whether they support the Democratic State Committee’s resolution for a moratorium on “fracking,” or hydraulic fracturing, a process of injection millions of gallons of chemical-laced water into a well bore to help coax natural gas out of the rock in which it is trapped.
The party’s seven gubernatorial candidates do not, but two candidates for lieutenant governor — former Harrisburg mayoral aide Brenda Alton and Harrisburg City Councilman Brad Koplinski — said they would support a moratorium, at least until the state imposes stronger environmental and safety protections, if not a higher tax.
The other candidates — Philadelphia state Sen. Michael Stack, Bradford County Commissioner Mark Smith, Critz and Paterno — each said they would not support a moratorium because of the industry’s economic benefit, but also used it as a way to advocate for stronger regulations, more money to enforce those regulations or higher taxes on the booming industry.
Alton agreed that there are economic benefits.
“But at what cost?” she questioned.
Koplinski cited an effective moratorium in New York, and criticized Pennsylvania’s lack of higher taxes on the industry.
“I think it’s because they’re looking to see how we screw it up down here, and we’ve screwed it up,” Koplinski said.
Smith, who was sworn in as a Bradford County commissioner in 2008, at the very start of the Marcellus Shale boom, noted that he serves in the most heavily drilled and highest producing gas county in Pennsylvania. He said he is a staunch advocate for strong environmental enforcement.
“On the flip side, I want to make sure that we are developing our economy and creating jobs,” Smith said.
Paterno noted that he would advocate for a tax incentive to encourage the drilling industry to hire more Pennsylvanians, while Stack said he supports a moratorium to drilling on public land.