HARRISBURG - Having already hired three former aides to Gov. Rendell, companies wanting to tap Pennsylvania's vast natural-gas reserves have set their sights on one of the state's best-known political figures: Tom Ridge.
The companies are looking to the former governor to help fix their tattered public image even as they try to influence lawmakers in Harrisburg on key public policy.
The Marcellus Shale Coalition, which represents more than two dozen natural-gas companies, is negotiating with Ridge's new lobbying firm, the Ridge Policy Group, to help in its plans for an aggressive public outreach campaign, coalition officials confirmed to The Inquirer last week.
That campaign is aimed at countering concerns about the rapid growth of gas drilling - not to mention the risks, as evidenced by the June explosion at a Clearfield County well. The industry, which is regulated by the state Department of Environmental Protection, is embroiled in legislative debates over taxing gas extracted from the lucrative Marcellus Shale formation, among other issues.
"Right now, there is so much misinformation out there," said Kristi Gittins, a member of the Marcellus Shale Coalition's executive committee. "We have a lot of work to do explaining what the economic benefits are for Pennsylvania and for the energy security of the nation."
Details of the negotiations with Ridge's firm are being kept under wraps, and coalition officials stressed that a formal contract with the firm had not yet been signed.
But luring a prestige-laced name such as Ridge's would infuse the industry's efforts with the full force of the former governor's popularity and influence.
"These are smart people," said Barry Kauffman, executive director of the watchdog group Common Cause Pennsylvania, "and they know the importance of clout in getting things done."
Ridge, 64, who is to be one of the keynote speakers at what the coalition is calling a "landmark" natural-gas summit in Pittsburgh this fall, could not be reached for comment.
His partners in the Ridge Policy Group, Mark Holman and Mark Campbell, former gubernatorial chiefs of staff to Ridge, did not return calls.
The natural-gas industry has not been shy about hiring Pennsylvania people with government connections.
Over the last year, at least three senior members of Rendell's administration have taken jobs with natural-gas companies.
Earlier this month, Sarah Battisti, one of Rendell's five deputy chiefs of staff, took a government-affairs position with BG Group, a British gas company that recently bought a stake in Pennsylvania.
Several months before that, Barbara Sexton, Rendell's executive deputy secretary of environmental protection, left to work in governmental affairs for Chesapeake Energy Corp., an Oklahoma company that is one of the nation's largest gas-exploration firms.
And last fall, K. Scott Roy, Rendell's executive deputy chief of staff, joined Range Resources Corp. Roy had been a liaison between the governor's office and the gas industry and environmental groups.
But Ridge would be the industry's biggest fish by far.
"He brings prestige and cachet," said political analyst G. Terry Madonna, noting that Ridge is still very popular in the state.
Ridge's firm "will get meetings with anyone they want to get meetings with," said Madonna, a political scientist at Franklin and Marshall College. "They won't have a hard time getting people to chat with them."
A former congressman from Erie, Ridge was elected governor in 1994 and reelected four years later. A Republican, he was recruited by former President George W. Bush after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks to head the new Department of Homeland Security. After quitting that job in 2005, he formed a security consulting firm, Ridge Global, in Washington. Touted as a possible running mate to his friend John McCain in 2008, he is still very popular in most corners of the state.
His new firm, which has described the former governor's role as "strategic adviser," was formed in April and has offices in Washington and Harrisburg. Already, it boasts such big-name clients as Aramark and Independence Blue Cross.
The Marcellus Shale Coalition would be a major account; natural-gas exploration has become the new frontier.
Energy companies large and small are looking to capitalize on extracting natural gas in the Marcellus Shale formation, which lies primarily beneath New York, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia.
And lots of money is at stake. Just last week, the American Petroleum Institute released a report saying the shale's natural-gas reserves are worth nearly $2 trillion to industry - and billions in potential tax revenue to the states.
As a result, plenty is being spent to influence public policy touching on gas drilling.
The industry gave almost $3 million to political candidates in Pennsylvania between 2001 and March of this year, according to a Common Cause report released in May. It spent an additional $4.2 million on lobbying Pennsylvania officials since 2007, when the state began requiring lobbyists to publicly disclose their spending, the report found.
The Marcellus coalition alone spent a little more than $205,000 in the first three months of this year, according to its latest lobbying disclosures.
Those efforts came amid fierce wrangling in Harrisburg over proposed gas taxes and other issues - along with not-always-flattering headlines from the drilling fields.
The explosion last month in a Marcellus Shale gas well in Clearfield County focused increased scrutiny on the industry's practices and risks. And the recent documentary Gasland - whose facts have been questioned since its release - portrayed the industry as reckless and money-hungry.
"We have taken a hit," said Gittins, the Marcellus Shale Coalition executive committee member who is also vice president of public affairs for Dallas-based Chief Oil & Gas. "It's up to us as an industry to educate people about what we do so that there is a comfort level."
Starting next month, she said, the coalition will roll out a public outreach campaign that will include community meetings and gas-drilling tours, as well as meetings with local business leaders and editorial boards.
Beyond public relations, the industry is pushing key legislative changes.
In Pennsylvania, among the most pressing issues are when and how much to tax natural-gas extraction and how to disburse that money. Legislators are supposed to grapple with these questions in the fall.
A battle is also brewing over legislation the industry is seeking that would require holdout landowners to lease drilling rights to their land if a majority of property owners in that area have already done so.
"The bottom line," said political analyst Madonna, "is that everybody wants something.
"And they are going to position themselves, in the best way they can, to get what they want."