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Editorial: Drilling for friends

It is shocking, shocking that a top aide to Gov. Rendell was lured away to work for a gas-drilling firm with a major stake in Pennsylvania's natural gas deposits.

It is shocking, shocking that a top aide to Gov. Rendell was lured away to work for a gas-drilling firm with a major stake in Pennsylvania's natural gas deposits.

K. Scott Roy is stepping down from his $146,000-a-year job as Rendell's executive deputy chief of staff. He'll start work Monday in a job that pays goodness-knows-how-much with Range Resources Corp., a Texas company with leasing rights to 900,000 acres in the state's gas-rich Marcellus Shale region.

Until now, Roy had been the governor's liaison on drilling issues. Now he will be Range Resources' point man in Harrisburg for government relations and regulatory affairs.

Nice work if you can get it.

Roy's move comes at an extremely awkward moment for Democrat Rendell, who began the year calling for a severance tax on gas drilling but recently did a full 180-degree turn.

Here's Rendell during his Feb. 9 budget address: "We have a Pennsylvania gold rush going on in the form of drilling for natural gas." He estimated that the tax would bring in $632 million over four years to the depleted state coffers.

But then, in late August, Rendell abandoned the severance tax - at least for one year. He said industry leaders persuaded him that it would hamper the growth of drilling in the state.

Fascinating, because Rendell also said in his February speech: "Some have suggested that exacting such a tax would hinder development of this important resource. However, I spoke personally with West Virginia Gov. Manchin, who told me that their [severance tax] did not inhibit gas extraction and that it is continuing at a record pace, and it's reaping critically needed revenues so the state can provide services to its citizens."

The recession hasn't appeared to hurt the drillers' plans either. In the first four months of this year, the state Department of Environmental Protection issued more than 2,000 drilling permits.

Range Resources, by the way, spent more than $400,000 in the first half of this year to lobby Rendell and legislators on how it couldn't afford a severance tax. (So the governor and legislature instead tried to tax arts groups, whose lobby isn't so wealthy).

A Rendell spokesman said Roy's new job had nothing to do with Rendell's changing course and postponing a severance tax; Senate GOP opposition to the tax played a part. But the timing looks about as bad as bad can be.

For example, when did Roy start talking to Range Resources about a job? Rendell's spokesman said he doesn't know. He also said Roy doesn't remember facilitating any contacts between the governor and Range this year.

Rendell isn't the only one in Harrisburg being wooed by the oil and gas industry. Talk about a gold rush - oil and gas companies are donating furiously to the reelection campaigns of a number of state legislators. And the legislature is doing its selfish part by refusing to impose campaign finance limits.

One legislator who has struck gold is Senate President Pro Tempore (and Lt. Gov.) Joe Scarnati (R., Jefferson). One firm alone, Reliant Energy of Texas, has donated $11,000 to his campaign in the past two years through its political action committee.

By the way, Scarnati's Republican-led Senate on Monday approved a new spending plan that would cut the DEP's budget by 30 percent - from $229 million to $160 million. Less money for environmental protection must have drillers weeping with joy.