Serving the public or the industry?

May 5, 2014

Part of the reason there’s so much corrosive cynicism about and mistrust of government is the perception that public servants aren’t really working for the public.

Oh, there’s all kinds of rhetoric about the public interest, but, sometimes, the real interest seems to be in appeasing donors, the powerful, the well-heeled and the well-connected.

Anyone trying to shake off their disenchantment would have been severely tested last week when StateImpact Pennsylvania, which reports on energy and environmental issues on NPR radio outlets throughout the commonwealth, revealed that a Harrisburg law firm has been advising the Public Utilities Commission on zoning issues related to the oil and gas industry at the same time it has been representing energy companies before the PUC.

The firm, McNees, Wallace and Nurick, had been due to represent Sunoco Logistics before the PUC in a battle over whether the company can be considered a public utility and sidestep local zoning rules in its efforts to refurbish a pipeline that stretches across the state. However, after the StateImpact Pennsylvania story, the law firm withdrew its services.

But, even with McNees, Wallace and Nurick out of that particular picture, it’s not as if Sunoco Logistics will be deprived of someone with first-rank Harrisburg credentials on their team – among the attorneys now arguing on Sunoco’s behalf will be Michael Krancer, who had been at the helm of the Department of Environmental Protection until the private sector beckoned last year.

A member of the industry advocacy group the Marcellus Shale Coalition, along with the Pennsylvania Independent Oil and Gas Association, McNees, Wallace and Nurick had also been advising the PUC about zoning matters under Act 13, the oil and gas law enacted amid much controversy in 2012. So far, according to State Impact Pennsylvania, the firm has been paid more than $29,000 for its labors on behalf of the state.

Chris Borick, a political science professor at Muhlenberg College, summed up the arrangement pretty well: “This is pretty bizarre. No matter what the legal boundaries say, from a public perception point, it just seems too cozy between the industry and the regulators.”

A spokeswoman denied there was any conflict of interest in the PUC having a law firm advise it that has such deep ties to the industry because they used different lawyers for each function.

“The divisions are siloed within the law firm,” she explained.

But, still, all these attorneys are working for the same firm and, one assumes, their primary allegiance would be to the enterprise that provides them with a livelihood. And, it seems, the paramount concern of McNees, Wallace and Nurick is being a player within the oil and gas industry.

It certainly doesn’t carry the appearance of a neutral arbiter or a disinterested observer.

Whether it’s pocketing elephantine campaign donations from the industry, assembling Act 13 with lobbyists at hand or swatting aside an extraction tax, too often Gov. Tom Corbett and many of his allies in the state House and Senate have seemed too beholden to the oil and gas industry, rather than the voters who put them in office. By tethering itself to a law firm deeply invested in the industry, the PUC has, unfortunately, done nothing to reshape that impression.



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