Update (10:15 a.m., October 30th): This piece has been updated to include comment from Councilman Jones.
City Councilman Curtis Jones Jr. is co-hosting an industry sponsored tour of the Marcellus Shale on Friday, according to a flier.
A Food and Water Watch member discovered the flier. The group — which, among other things, does anti-fracking advocacy — sent a letter (below) to Jones expressing “surprise and dismay” at Jones’ sponsorship of the tour.
“We are disappointed and concerned about this,” the group’s Sam Bernhardt said. “For Food and Water Watch, as a group that has worked with Jones on environmental issues previously, he’s been one of the outspoken opponents of fracking.”
In January 2011, Jones sponsored recommendations that called for a temporary ban on new wells in the Delaware River basin. The report, which also urged PGW to avoid buying gas that comes from Pennsylvania’s Marcellus Shale, was symbolic: PGW had no plans to buy such gas, and a region-wide drilling moratorium in the area was already in place. (The state later voted to ban fracking in the South Newark Basin, parts of which are in Montgomery and Bucks counties.)
At the time, Jones said he was sending a message to the gas industry opposing drilling in the Philadelphia area. “Philadelphia is a major city and we’re hoping that behind this push, that we can use it for leverage,” a spokeswoman told ProPublica that year.
Though unavailable for comment on Thursday evening, on Friday Jones responded via email:
“As an elected official and a member of the Philadelphia Gas Commission, I have a responsibility to sometimes conduct public policy research on a first hand basis. Today is one of those days,” Jones wrote. “I always keep an open mind when formulating opinions and crafting legislation so I took the Marcellus Shale Coalition up on their invitation to tour a rig today. In 2011 when I introduced and passed my resolution to ban fracking in the Delaware River basin, industry proponents asked me if I had ever been to a fracking site, four years later I am finally on that fact finding mission.”
An email sent to a Marcellus Shale Coalition email address on the flier was not returned. In addition to Jones, the Marcellus Shale Coalition, Cabot Oil and Gas Corporation, UGI Energy Services, Sunoco Logistics and other groups are sponsoring the event.
Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf is currently in a budget battle with House and Senate Republicans. One contentious issue is an additional 5% severance tax Wolf wants to put on gas extracted from the Marcellus Shale.
“This administration’s words continue to be alarmingly detached from its actions as it relates to policy and regulatory matters,” Dave Spigelmyer, president of the Pittsburgh-based Marcellus Shale Coalition, told the Wall Street Journal earlier this year.
Wolf wants to help fund schools with the new levy on Marcellus Shale gas, which he says would bring $1 billion to public schools statewide. Wolf said he supports a compromise on the tax, while Republicans said it would damage the state’s economy. “We cannot take action that would damage this valuable vehicle for economic development and job creation,” Senate Republican Majority leader Jake Corman said.
A low- and moderate-income advocacy group, Action United, also sent a letter to Jones. “We urge you to remove your office as a sponsor of this tour, and to instruct your staff that they should focus on serving your constituents in your Philadelphia office, rather than spending the day with the industry front group responsible for undermining the health of Philadelphia’s education system,” Kia Philpot-Hinton, the group’s president, wrote to Jones. “Instead of attending tomorrow’s tour, we request that you meet with our leaders to discuss the health and safety issues posed by the expansion of fracking infrastructure in Philadelphia.”
In his statement, Jones said, “As a Gas Commissioner, I have a responsibility to take a close look at the industry. As the Councilman of the 4th District, I need to take a close look at how fracking affects the Schuylkill River. I proudly represent a large portion of the river. I cannot make whole decisions on half information. I am here today to look and listen. As an elected official, it is vital to keep an open mind to all sides of an issue in the public policy process.”
Both groups are asking Jones to withdraw his co-sponsorship of the event.
Read the letters sent to Jones by the activist organizations below.
Follow @dhm on Twitter.