Jerry Zremski | The Buffalo News
WASHINGTON — In the midst of what might have been the happiest Buffalo Nite in Washington ever, Rep. Chris Collins spoke a hard truth about everyone’s happiness that seemed to some like, well, pouring fracking wastewater in the punch bowl.
“The reason the Bills are staying in Buffalo is because of Terry Pegula and hydrofracking,” the Clarence Republican said at the annual event for Buffalo expatriates in the nation’s capital Wednesday night.
There. He said it: the H-word.
Amid all the joy surrounding Terry and Kim Pegula’s impending purchase of the Buffalo Bills — which likely keeps the beloved team in Buffalo for decades, if not longer — little has been said about the fact that the Pegulas earned the billions they used to buy the team through the controversial natural gas drilling practice called fracking.
In other words, fracking saved the Bills.
It seemed, though, that the crowd at Buffalo Nite didn’t want to hear it. Witnesses said the other politicians onstage appeared uncomfortable as Collins spoke, and several people in the crowd said later that they thought his comments were inappropriately political for what’s essentially a nonpartisan party.
Then again, it may just be that the comments by Collins, who supports fracking, forced people to confront an internal conflict over the Pegulas’ purchase of the team. And as if to prove that, when interviewed Thursday, two longtime Buffalo-based opponents of fracking talked as if they liked the notion of the Pegulas owning the Bills almost as much as they loathe fracking.
In any case, there’s no doubting the truth of Collins’ comments.
The Pegulas’ wealth is estimated at $4 billion, and it all comes from the gas fields of Pennsylvania. Terry Pegula formed East Resources, one of Pennsylvania’s fracking pioneers, with a $7,500 investment in 1983 — and ended up selling the company to Royal Dutch Shell at the peak of the fracking boom in 2010 for $4.7 billion.
To Collins, that’s a rags-to-riches tale that has brought nothing but good to the Buffalo community, given that Pegula also bought the Buffalo Sabres in 2011 and now is developing the new HarborCenter in downtown Buffalo.
And more good could come to the area if New York would just lift its moratorium on fracking, Collins said.
“We could have a more vibrant economy in New York, we could have more jobs in New York, and we don’t have them because of this continued moratorium,” Collins said in an interview Thursday. “And we could have, potentially, more Terry Pegulas. Let’s face it: He’s lived the American dream above and beyond.”
Many environmentalists remain convinced, though, that fracking will produce an environmental nightmare.
While scientific studies show no widespread evidence of fracking waste contaminating drinking water supplies, some homeowners near drilling sites insist that fracking allowed methane to enter their wells. And an increasing number of scientists fear that gas leaks from drilling sites might make fracking a far bigger contributor to climate change than originally thought.
Nevertheless, opponents of fracking seem to be taking a love-the-sinner, hate-the-sin approach to Pegula’s purchase of the Bills.
“Terry Pegula is a wealthy individual, and he has every right to buy the team,” said Brian Smith, associate executive director of Citizens Campaign for the Environment, a group that opposes fracking. “As a member of this community, I am thrilled that the Bills are staying — but I hope that fracking is banned in New York.”
Asked if he saw any contradiction in his support of Pegula’s purchase of the team and his opposition to fracking, Smith said: “I’m adamantly opposed to fracking, but the Bills are a separate issue.”
In the meantime, Buffalo Common Council Member Joseph Golombek Jr. of the North District, author of Buffalo’s 2011 fracking ban, seemed equally conflicted. “I’m sort of ambivalent about how Mr. Pegula made his money,” Golombek said. “Sure, I have serious questions about fracking, but I’m glad that someone with roots in Buffalo and a love of Buffalo bought the team.”
Collins is glad, too, and he expressed no remorse about making a crowd of 600 or so think beyond its joy about the Pegulas’ purchase of the team.
Asked why he raised the issue, Collins said: “It wasn’t prepared. It was ad-libbed. But I just couldn’t help myself.
“The hydrofracking debate is alive and well in D.C.. and I make no bones about my support of it, so it was my chance to say what I said.”