Pegula of Sabres pushed for hydrofracking in New York

Reporting, analysis and commentary
by Jim Heaney, editor of Investigative Post

Buffalo Sabres owner Terry Pegula, who made his fortune hydrofracking, has used his status as a sports mogul at least once to lobby state lawmakers to embrace drilling for natural gas.

Jon Campbell of the Gannett News Service’s capital bureau in Albany is reporting that Pegula invited lawmakers to his hockey arena 15 months ago and pitched them on the merits of hydrofracking.

In late November 2011, nine months after he took control of the National Hockey League club, Pegula gathered Buffalo-area officials and state lawmakers in a boardroom at then-HSBC Arena. There, he and members of his East Resources team made their pitch for large scale hydraulic fracturing …

“He and his former scientist colleagues and the rest of his management called in our delegation to a meeting where they proceeded to explain to us how this is a safe industry and everything will be fine, we just need to have access to doing this in New York” Assemblywoman Crystal Peoples-Stokes, D-Buffalo, said this week. “They said New York is behind the eight ball on this one and they should jump right in and let us do this.”

Peoples-Stokes mentioned the meeting at a Tuesday news conference in Albany, where members of the Assembly criticized Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s administration for not being more open about its ongoing review of hydrofracking. Three other lawmakers confirmed the 2011 meeting, and a separate but similar presentation was given to city of Buffalo officials the same month.

Pegula is widely regarded by hockey fans in Buffalo as a benevolent figure, but reporting I did for The Buffalo News days before the NHL approved his purchase of the team, revealed another side. No link is available, but here’s what I reported on Jan. 30, 2011:

A News review of compliance records found East Resources, the company Terrence M. Pegula sold last summer for $4.7 billion, had a middling record of complying with environmental regulations in Pennsylvania, his base of operations. The company last year paid the largest regulatory fine in its history and was involved in a spill of toxic wastewater that resulted in the first quarantine of cattle in the history of natural gas drilling in the state.

“The compliance history of the company when it was in his hands was mediocre at best, and unfortunately, given the hazards of [hydraulic fracturing], mediocre isn’t good enough,” said Jan Jarrett, president of PennFuture, an environmental protection advocacy organization based in Harrisburg.

Pegula has made more than $630,000 in campaign contributions to Republican politicians and committees who support what one observer
termed his “very, very conservative” positions on global warming and taxes and regulations related to the natural gas industry.

“He’s mastered the political system in Pennsylvania. His company and his industry are getting special access and favorable treatment by the governor and Legislature,” said James Browning of Common Cause Pennsylvania and author of a study last year that examined campaign contributions from Pegula and others in the natural gas industry and how they have influenced state government in Harrisburg.

The Philadelphia Inquirer last fall used Pegula and his wife as poster children for what’s wrong with campaign finance law in Pennsylvania, which, unlike most states, does not limit how much individuals and special-interest groups contribute to state candidates. Pegula and his wife, Kim, gave Tom Corbett, the Republican candidate for governor last year, $310,000, making them one of the largest — if not the largest — donors to his campaign.

Corbett, by the way, is proving to be an unpopular governor, with polls showing a majority of voters opposed to his re-election.

Pegula, unlike Tom Golisano, the billionaire who sold the Sabres to him, has stayed out of local and state politics here in New York. The Gannett story noted that he’s not contributing to politicians in the Empire State, unlike many hydrofracking interests.

Pegula and his wife are major donors at the national level, however, contributing $221,600 the past two years to Republican interests. The National Republican Committee and the National Republican Senate Committee received about half of those donations, $118,200. GOP state committees in Massachusetts, Oklahoma, Vermont and Idaho received donations of $9,600 or more. Two candidates received money, presidential candidate Mitt  Romney ($10,000)  and Sen. Scott Brown of Massachusetts ($15,000).

To give Pegula his due, the Sabres under his direction have done some good things for the community, donating funds to sod a waterfront park adjacent to the hockey arena and pledging to build a $123 million complex across the street from First Niagara Center that will feature twin rinks, restaurants and a hotel – without major tax breaks, which is unusual.

But, as the Gannett story reminds us, Pegula is not above using his team to advance the interests of the industry that made him a billionaire, one that many consider a potential danger to public health in the Empire State should Gov. Andrew Cuomo approve hydrofracking.