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National Fuel CEO to Chair Business Council

This is not National Fuel chairman and CEO David F. Smith.

Last week, the Business Council of New York State—a statewide chamber of commerce, essentially, which claims more than 2,500 members—elected David F. Smith, chairman and CEO of National Fuel Gas Company, as its new board chairman.

In the press release, Smith is quoted as follows: “As the incoming chair of The Business Council, l look forward to advancing its mission of developing a healthier business climate that generates economic growth and stronger communities across New York State for both large and small businesses.” He continues to praise recent efforts by Governor Andrew Cuomo and the state legislature to improve that climate, and to thank his predecessors at the Business Council.

There are those here in National Fuel’s corporate home of Western New York who are less than sanguine about Smith’s new position. Take, for example, housing activists PUSH Buffalo, which tried to press Smith to consider its recommendations for the company’s conservation incentive program, a consumer-funded initiative intended to reduce energy use. (PUSH felt that the program should emphasize weatherizing old homes, and the attendant green jobs, over subsidies for energy-efficient appliances.) The intransigent Smith refused even to meet with PUSH, and threatened to punish those who did.

Here’s what National Fuel Accountability Coalition, of which PUSH Buffalo is a member, has to say about Smith’s appointment as chairman of the Business Council:

The Buffalo News has labeled Smith “Clueless about Community,” arguing that “Sopranos” sets the tone for Smith and National Fuel’s behavior. Smith and National Fuel filed a costly lawsuit against PUSH following a peaceful protest outside of company headquarters, and have followed up by threatening retributive action towards any organization that works with PUSH. Smith and National Fuel have repeatedly lied to the press, the public, and regulators in characterizing PUSH’s agenda.

National Fuel under Smith’s leadership appears to be entering a deeply unstable period due to its headfirst plunge into risky hydrofracturing in the Marcellus Shale. The company has exponentially increased its capital spending and drilling in Pennsylvania in the last two years, despite growing environmental concerns surrounding hydrofracturing. In 2010, one National Fuel well experienced a BP-style blowout that resulted in a historic fine from Pennsylvania’s DEC. Currently, National Fuel’s stock is down 26% from its 52-week high. In July, it tripped a single stock circuit breaker on the New York Stock Exchange after the company announced that it had failed to secure a joint venture partner in the Marcellus Shale.

With Smith at the helm, the Business Council will likely pursue a petty, short-sighted, and divisive agenda, rather than work to address the huge economic challenges facing the state. His appointment is a lost opportunity for true business leadership and will likely do lasting damage to the state’s business community and economy.

Smith is the highest-paid executive in Western New York—$7.1 million last year—and he is expected to make renewal of the so-called “millionaire’s tax,” which would maintain increased income tax rates for the wealthiest New Yorkers, a centerpiece of his tenure with the Business Council.

If you haven’t guessed, he’s against it.

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