Q&A with John Hanger

Friday, June 21st, 2013 at 4:11 PM
Q&A with John Hanger by Adam Kelly

On a rainy Monday morning, John Hanger stopped by Erie Reader office in the midst of campaigning. Hanger is the former Secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection under then Gov. Ed Rendell, and is now running for Governor of Pennsylvania with what he describes as a “no politics, just policy” agenda. 

Those that are familiar with the issues that come with natural gas drilling, or fracking, may already know John Hanger. He has appeared on the controversial documentaries “Gasland” and “Truthland”, both of which center around the issue of hydraulic fracturing – the often criticized method of extracting natural gas by drilling to create fractures in the earth, thus releasing the gas.

For those unfamiliar, Hanger came under fire by filmmaker Josh Fox in the critically acclaimed anti-fracking documentary “Gasland.” Fox claimed that natural gas drilling was polluting the water in his hometown of Demock, Pa.  Hanger’s support of natural gas led to a confrontation between Fox and Hanger that escalated to the point where Hanger walked out of his own office.

Hanger didn’t walk out of Erie Reader’s office when faced with the questions we asked him. Hanger presented his case on why he believes he should be our next governor, as he spoke of his policies and set the record straight on what he thinks is the best approach to natural gas and renewable energy.


Adam Kelly: Why do you think Gov. Corbett doesn’t deserve to be re-elected, and why do you think you’d be a better choice for Pennsylvanians and their future?

John Hanger: Well, I’m running because I have 29 years of experience working on policy, and it’s smart policy that creates jobs, smart policy that creates better schools, and smart policy that brings folks without health insurance into health care.

So, Pennsylvania right now has a huge attack launched by Gov. Corbett against public schools. I’m here to save our public schools. Pennsylvania’s economy is under-performing and the nation has created over 2 million jobs in the last 12 months, but here in Pennsylvania, we’ve created very, very few. We ranked seventh in job creation in 2010, so we were in the top ten states in creating jobs in 2010. That was the last year of the Rendell administration. And now, we’re in the bottom ten. We’re somewhere between 42nd and 50th in creating jobs.

Gov. Corbett’s economic policies believe somehow or another if you attack public education, if you cut healthcare, if you don’t have a transportation program that rebuilds roads and bridges, and if you give tax cuts to businesses, then you’ll create jobs. It’s the old right-wing playbook, and it just doesn’t work.

So, my plan—and I have a jobs plan, it’s on my website at hangerforgovernor.com—my jobs plan has eight points to it. First, it raises a total of $ 8 billion in revenue, it cuts $931 million of money now going to poor uses, like funding badly failing charter schools, and it takes that $931 million and redirects it to our public schools, as well as some good-performing charter schools in our education institutions.

My jobs plan has 382, 500 jobs that it would create over a four-year period and each of the jobs claims in my plan are backed up by a footnote with an independent study, so I’m not pulling stuff out of thin air.

So, the simple answer to your question about why Corbett doesn’t deserve to be reelected is he’s attacked our higher-ed system, he’s attacked our K through 12 public school systems, absolutely harming education. You can’t have a good economy with a poor education system. We have, in fact, a poor education system because of Corbett’s right-wing policies of cut, cut, cut that just don’t work to create jobs. My plans are very different. I have a plan to reinvest in our public schools, to end funding of poor-performing charter schools and redirect that money which is now hundreds of millions of dollars each year into our public schools. We can solve the public school funding issue by stop wasting money on poor-performing charter schools and I would also require public schools to have a longer school day and a longer school year, more early childhood education and intensive teacher training programs to improve the quality of teaching.

All those three initiatives will create better performing public schools. I also, in my jobs plan have a proposal to double the renewable energy: wind, solar, biomass, hydro, geothermal, to double energy efficiency. That proposal would create tens of thousands of jobs, as well as more clean energy. I would tax the gas drilling industry and strongly regulate the gas industry. Gov. Corbett has rolled out a “red carpet” and given the gas industry a complete blank check. That’s got to come to an end.

AK: What distinguishes you from your fellow Democratic candidates in the race for governor?

JH: There’s a couple things. First, I’ve spent 29 years working on state policy. Again, a governor creates jobs or better schools by being effective with policy. If a governor doesn’t really understand policy and isn’t pretty hands-on about it, he or she is not going to be an effective governor. I don’t know a whole lot about congress, but I’m not running for congress. I know a lot about Pennsylvania, and I’ve spent 29 years travelling across Pennsylvania.

As we were saying from the beginning, this is far from the first time that I’ve been in Erie. Indeed, it’s the second time I’ve been in Erie during this campaign. So, I understand Pennsylvania; I understand policy.

Then, I have specific plans that are on my website. I’m the only candidate with a jobs plan—the only candidate with a jobs plan. I’m the only candidate with a plan for renewable energy. I’m the only democratic candidate with a plan to save our public schools by stop funding of failing charter schools.

I need to mention that we have 16 cyber-charter schools in Pennsylvania right now. They cost $356 million a year of local and state taxpayer money. All 16 cyber-charter schools, when you look at the test performance of the students in them, are failing. They are not meeting what is called Adequate Yearly Progress, or AYP standards. So I’m the candidate whose got specific plans to deal with the funding crisis for schools. I’ve go specific plans to make education better through a longer school year and a longer school day.

I am the candidate that is unabashedly for marriage equality—for ending the discrimination against the LGBT community in employment and in housing. It’s a disgrace, but it’s true, that today in Pennsylvania you can be fired for being LGBT and no other reason. You can be denied a home on the same basis.

I am the candidate that is for medical marijuana and for decriminalizing marijuana. In other words, I’m for marijuana reform.

I’m the candidate who says we should implicate Medicaid expansion and the healthcare exchanges. But, I’m also the only candidate saying that I have some concerns whether the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, is going to get the full job done. I’m for the public option; I’m for a single-payer program.

I’m the candidate who would sign a bill to repeal the death penalty. The last execution in Pennsylvania was in 1999. One person on death row has been there for 32 years. It doesn’t work, it discriminates against those who don’t have money for a private attorney, it discriminates on the basis of race. We have condemned the innocent, and it’s very, very expensive and it doesn’t work. It needs to be replaced with life without parole.

I’m tough on violent crime. I’ve had a gun put to my head. I know what it means to look down the end of a gun that’s threatening your life. I’m very tough on violent crime. But, I’m not stupid about violent crime or crime overall. We’ve going to be smart and tough at the same time and life without parole will be a better way of handling the very worst amongst us who must be separated from us forever. So, I would sign a repeal of the death penalty.

I’m the candidate who is engaging voters on policy first and politics second. All these other candidates are out raising money. We had a debate in Harrisburg. It was televised statewide last week. I showed up. I debated. I was ready. Two candidates agreed to debate and then backed out at the last minute. They weren’t ready to debate or they were scared to debate (laughs). If you’re not ready to debate and scared to debate at this point then why are you running for governor?

So, I’m ready. I have a background also shows that I care about working people. I came out of law school and went to work for community Legal Services, which is a nonprofit providing free legal services to families without enough money to hire a private attorney. And I work with those families on energy issues.

The last thing I’d say is Pennsylvania is now the third biggest total energy producer in the country. We’re second in nuclear production, forth in coal, third in natural gas, and 15th in renewables. I’m an expert on energy and I’m an expert on utilities and I’m an expert on the environment. I know how to maximize the opportunities we have in Pennsylvania while minimizing the downsides of energy production.

I have a plan in my jobs plan that would enable every Pennsylvanian to save up to $2 a gallon by buying a vehicle that runs on electricity or natural gas as opposed to oil when they go to buy a vehicle. In order to do that we have to have the fueling stations deployed across the state. People won’t buy alternative transportation when they run out of fuel if they buy it, because there’s no fueling station. Now, we can use our electric and natural gas utilities to build fueling stations across Pennsylvania.

Pennsylvania can be the first state in the country where every car buyer has a free choice between buying a vehicle that runs on natural gas, electricity, or gasoline. Today, at least, you save a lot of money if you’re driving around on electricity or natural gas compared to diesel or gasoline.


AK: During Corbett’s time as governor, Erie’s designation was changed to “rural,” yet over 100,000 people live within the city limits and the city serves as Pa.’s only port and connects the state to the Great Lakes. What would you do in Harrisburg to ensure the voices and concerns of Erie are heard accurately so that we’re not just considered a forgotten city in Pa.’s western hinterlands?

JH: Right, well again the first thing you’ve got from me is I’ve walked this talk. I’ve been to Erie more times than I can remember, and I’ve never forgotten Erie. So, I think that’s a fair question for the four democratic candidates who are from southeast Pennsylvania. That’s a long way away from Erie. I live in Hershey, and I live in rural, or small-town Pennsylvania, and I care a great deal about rural, small-town Pennsylvania. I care a great deal about towns like Erie that have had to reinvent themselves as global economic changes have swept through.

Erie is full of energy; it’s full of people who have dreams, who are trying to build lives and careers. I’m on their side, and that’s why I’m a Democrat, quite frankly. The rich are going to do just fine no matter who’s governor. The powerful are going to do just fine no matter who’s governor. The question is whether people in towns like Erie—in communities like Erie—will do fine, and for that you need a government who cares and a governor who understands these communities and the challenges.

Now, I can’t make Erie or any place perfect. None of us can. But, a governor can make things better or worse. I know how to help Erie make itself better. I can be a partner here in Erie, and there are strategic assets of Erie, like its port and its connection to the Great Lakes. That’s unique for Pennsylvania and we need to help Erie maximize that advantage.


AK: You mentioned earlier that you were never in Congress. You’ve never actually held elected office before. What made you decide to run for Governor of Pennsylvania?

JH: Well, I’ve held two statewide offices. I’ve been a commissioner of the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission, and I’ve been the Secretary of the Department of Environmental Protection. That adds up to seven years and about six months of statewide office holding, and actually no one else in this race has that length of statewide office holding. As a result of that public service, I know Pennsylvania. I’ve been literally all across the state and I know the issues that confront every part of Pennsylvania.

And I know its economy. When you’re a public utility commissioner, you’re working on infrastructure, you’re working on water and sewer, you’re working on electricity and gas, you’re looking to keep rates affordable for consumers. You’re working to help those consumers that don’t have enough money to pay their electric bill. You are dealing with all the critical issues that are the foundation of the economy.

So, I also am an expert on policy. I’ve been called a “policy wonk” (laughs), and I plead guilty to the charge. I am, I’m a policy wonk. I’m not an entertainer, but I do understand policy. That’s what you’ve got to have in the governorship. You’ve got to have a governor who understands policy, but I also understand how to manage.

I’ve managed the Department of Environmental Protection. It’s a 2,800-employee agency with an $800 million budget when you count up federal, state, and other revenues into the department. I’ve also managed the Public Utility Commission. So, I’m ready to be governor, and the best proof of my readiness for governorship is that I have all these plans on my website.

When I announced that I have policy on my website, I’m very proud that my campaign is about policy first and politics second. So, if your readers want somebody who understands them and understands policy and how policy can be used to make their lives better, I’m their candidate. And I’ll tell you this: as I travel around Pennsylvania, Pennsylvanians do not want to trade a failed Republican for a poor Democratic Governor. They want a successful democratic governor.

Now, I lead Tom Corbett by seven points in the head-to-head poll. I can beat Tom Corbett. I’m fully electable, and I happen to be the best person in the race to be the next governor.


AK: Pa. has its fair share of both Democrats and a large amount of Republicans in non-metropolitan areas. Hypothetically speaking, how would you appeal to some Republicans and undecided voters if you won the Democratic primary?

JH: Well, the good news is there are a lot of Pennsylvanians who are republicans or independents that are willing to vote for anybody but Tom Corbett. Tom Corbett is a failed governor, and as I said, I am actually seven points ahead of Tom Corbett in a public policy poll head-to-head. I can definitely beat Tom Corbett.

But, the way I can appeal to Republicans and Independents is the same way I appeal to all voters. I have specific plans. I have a jobs plan. I have the double renewable energy plan. I have climate action plan. Did I mention climate change? I take that seriously. I have a plan to reduce carbon emissions in Pennsylvania. I have plans to treat all Pennsylvanians equally before the law.

So, I will deliver that message across Pennsylvania. It’s a winning message, even if Tom Corbett was not a failed governor; it’s a winning message. But, I’m very confident that once I win the nomination, I will, in fact, beat Tom Corbett.


AK: You’ve had an extensive amount of experience in both writing and passing environmental legislation, dating back to 1996.  Our latest issue of the Erie Reader features the problems facing our own Presque Isle as the cover story. In your opinion, what are the most dire environmental issues facing Pennsylvania?

JH: My experience is in both energy and the environment. I think that’s an important point, because many of our environmental problems are rooted in our energy use and energy production. We’ve got to strongly regulate the natural gas industry and we’ve got to tax it. It’s a disgrace that we’re not strongly regulating it or taxing it. I have a plan on my website to bring world-class regulation, enforcement, and taxation to the gas industry.

So, one of the top environmental issues in Pennsylvania is the gas industry. We’ve got to properly regulate that. And I would increase the number of inspectors significantly; I more than doubled them when I was secretary. But I would hire another 105 inspectors immediately. I would further strengthen the rules and regulations banning outside pits for drilling wastewater among other things; it’s all in my plan.

By the way, I wrote the moratorium that exists on drilling on state forests that Gov. Rendell issued. That was something that I wrote, so I know how to protect our state parks and state forests.

In addition to gas drilling, we have continuing challenges on water quality, and that’s true in Lake Erie. Right now, Lake Erie is showing stress from agricultural runoff. You know, we’ve got a lot of algae blooms that are threatening the great lakes generally.

We also have continuing struggles with air emissions. When I was secretary, I went to “bat” for the people of Erie to get Erie Coke to clean up. Erie Coke, at one point, was putting large amounts of air pollutants that cause human illness into the air of this community. At times, they would even have these huge, sort of, air pollution “belches” that would send black clouds billowing across big parts of the lakefront.

So, I understand how to address water pollution, air pollution, and I also understand how we have to conserve and protect our special places. And Lake Erie is a special place.


AK: Now, you mentioned that you’re not an entertainer, but kind of ironically you end up in the films “Gasland” and “Truthland.” According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, “Gasland’s” Josh Fox portrays you as a “liberal who’s spent years in the mainstream environmental movement—as an equivocating tool of the natural gas industry.” Can you tell us a little about your experience of being interviewed by Fox, how he portrayed you, and whether you think this left people with a lasting concern about this environmental issue?

JH: Well, I mean Josh is a very skilled filmmaker. I think he has a—at least at the time of his first movie—a sort of lay understanding of energy policy. I’ve got 29 years of energy policy experience. And as a result, I know the strengths and weaknesses of each of our energy resources.

That experience is both a blessing and a curse almost, on my part because it teaches me things like “If you’re going to shut down a nuclear power plant, what’s going to take its place?” In California they’re shutting down two nuclear power plants right now, and it turns out that a whole bunch more of natural gas is going to be used to take the place of the two nuclear power plants.

I live in the Three Mile Island nuclear evacuation area. I understand the risks of every single energy source. I wish we had a perfect or even excellent energy option to turn to so we could shut down all the coalmines, stop all the gas drilling, and turn off all the nuclear plants.

I am a huge proponent of renewable energy and very frankly I’ve done more for renewable energy in Pennsylvania than Josh Fox ever will do in his entire life. I’ve fought for every single wind farm in Pennsylvania and I’ve fought for every single solar farm in Pennsylvania. I’m the guy who got the PA Sunshine Program up and running. I’m going to do more for wind and solar in Pennsylvania if I’m elected governor than Josh Fox will ever be able to do. I also understand that energy efficiency is critical. There’s nothing more important than using the energy that is produced from all of these, rather less than excellent sources, wisely.

So, on the gas industry, there was no tougher regulator in the entire country than me. I went to war for the families in Demock, Pa. I won them a $4.1 million settlement, $201,000 per family. There were 18 families that had their water contaminated by methane migrating from poor gas drilling by Cabot. It wasn’t frack fluids coming up from depth, and it’s important to understand what happened there and what didn’t happen there.

But, I understand all of these issues very, very intimately and I’m the guy who wrote the moratorium on further drilling on state forests. So, very frankly, I’m not going to let people in Erie freeze. I know you use gas here to get through the winter and I’m not going to shut down every nuclear plant when I know we don’t have anything that would take its place that is actually cleaner or better right now.

I’d love to get to a point where wind and solar energy efficiency could meet all our needs. We’re a long way away from that, but I’m the guy who’s accelerating the deployment of clean renewables.


AK: In the film “Truthland,” you said that you support fracking for natural gas as the best and cleanest fossil fuel source, as long as it’s done “excellently.” Can you elaborate on that?

JH: There’s a few points—again, I don’t pander to people—I try to tell people the truth. Coal, oil, and natural gas are different fossil fuels, and they have different impacts. All of them have significant impacts, but they’re not all the same.

When you spill oil in Lake Erie, you get a hell of a mess. When natural gas is let go in the Gulf of Mexico, or were it to be spilled in Lake Erie, it would cause much less damage. That’s just a factual, truthful statement.

It’s not to say that gas drilling has no impact. It does, and that’s why I’m so strongly regulating it. That’s why I wrote a moratorium on drilling on state forests. That’s why I went to war for 18 families in Demock, Pa. But, I’m not going to sit here and tell you, “Oh, all the fossil fuels have the exact same impact on our land, air and water.” They don’t.

Very frankly, coal has the most impact, then oil, then natural gas. Nuclear plants—it depends on whether they’re running well or not. In Fukushima today, people in Fukushima, I’m sure wish they had a coal plant in their neighborhood, not a nuclear plant. Nuclear plants probably have very little impact on the local environment, until they go really wrong and then they’re devastating.

It’s because of those varying impacts I’m strongly for accelerating renewables. But, I’ve been attacked by those who love birds and bats, and therefore hate wind. For some people, wind power is the very worst option, because they love birds and bats so much.

So, I’m just being honest with people and direct with people about the truth of our energy choices. Our energy choices are pretty ugly when you look at it. Our energy choices are sort of like what a doctor tells a cancer patient. “The good news is that I can save your life. The bad news is I’m gonna have to amputate your left arm.”

That’s sort of the truth of our energy choices. But, I’m the guy who will strongly regulate the gas industry. I will tax it, and I will shut down those gas operations that refuse to follow our rules. And I’ve done all of that.


AK: As former president of PennFuture, an interest group that believes in both a good environment and a good economy, how close are we as a society to actually making that goal a reality?

JH: You know, I think we sort of take two steps forward and one step back. That’s the phrase that I use. It’s not a straight line towards reaching that goal and it’s not occurring as fast as I would like it to occur.

I think energy is the key to reaching that goal. We have to get more clean energy into our economy. A steel plant or local Erie Coke would not create environmental issues if it was running on truly clean energy. And that, for me, is renewables today.

But, most of our society is running on coal oil, natural gas, and nuclear. More than 95 percent of our energy comes from those four things. And we have to just accelerate very rapidly the clean energy in order to make our economy run cleaner.

It’s also important that our economy use energy efficiently. I drive an energy efficient vehicle, but it’s still running on gasoline. But, at least it’s fuel-efficient. It’s also very important that we look in our buildings, in our factories, in our homes, and in our cars to use energy more efficiently.


AK: Last question. Jay Stevens, one of the Erie Reader’s investigative journalists, recently wrote a story on fracking. Basically, he came to the realization that there will always be disagreements when it comes to this issue because of all the grey area. Does it have to be like this?

JH: Well, it is a grey area. Look, I wish I lived in a world where there was no fracking. I’ve said that before, and I’ve just said it to you (laughs). I wish I lived in a world where there was no fracking.

But right now, given our technology, that would mean that 51 percent of homes that use natural gas to get through the winter would have a lot of problems in about three or four months when it starts getting cold here in Erie.

So, where I come down on these issues is two fundamental things. First, you’ve got to strongly regulate the coal, oil, natural gas, and nuclear industries—and I do that. I know how to strongly regulate. You have to minimize the risks that each of them present and you’ve got to minimize the impacts. And you’ve got to realize that by shutting down a nuclear plant your going to almost immediately begin using coal, oil and natural gas right away.

And if you took away all the natural gas, assuming you could do that right now, in the short run would mean a lot more coal and oil being used. So, you have to be realistic about what the consequences are in the short run—meaning the next 5-10 years, of various choices.

The second point that I’m very committed to is accelerating the future. I’ve spent my career actually building wind farms and taking the hits for supporting wind farms from those who don’t like them. I’ve spent a career making a case for solar energy and taking attacks from the right wing. 

So, I recognize the grey areas. I think anyone who really gets into these issues finds that—yeah, it’s pretty messy. The choices aren’t great. My way forward is to strongly regulate the traditional industries, to minimize their impacts, and accelerate the future by boosting renewable, especially wind and solar, and energy efficiency. 


Adam Kelly can be contacted at aKelly@ErieReader.com, and you can follow him on Twitter @akAdamKelly.

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