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Corbett: Coal is working

| Wednesday, April 23, 2014, 12:01 a.m.

States and the energy industry should work together to improve carbon-capturing technology to save coal-burning power plants and coal-related jobs threatened by federal clean air regulations, Gov. Tom Corbett said on Tuesday.

Speaking at a coal industry conference at Nemacolin Woodlands Resort in Fayette County, the Shaler Republican joined a chorus of voices complaining that environmental regulations will push coal out as an electricity source.

“If you take one energy source out of the mix, you just know the cost of electricity will go up,” Corbett told about 100 people at the Nemacolin Energy Institute gathering.

He later announced he would work with Wyoming Gov. Matthew H. Mead and other coal-producing states on research and eventually build a joint testing center for affordable emission-control technology.

“You can't tell me we can't find a way to do that,” said Corbett, whose administration this month asked the Obama administration to consult with states on new emission rules for power plants.

His comments found supporters at Nemacolin's third annual National Coal Conference, where Corbett met privately with about a dozen people with jobs that rely on coal mining.

Power generators, though, have no commercially viable technology to remove carbon dioxide from plant emissions and store it underground, said Jacob G. Smeltz, president of the Electric Power Generation Association in Harrisburg.

“If there was a technology, the question becomes if it's economical to purchase and install it,” he said. “Right now, the answer is no.”

Generators continue to close coal-fired power plants not only because of regulations to reduce carbon-dioxide emissions blamed for global warming, but because of competition from cheaper gas plants and conservation efforts, Smeltz noted. Factoring in higher cost for more technology would make their power unsellable on the market, he said.

More coal plant closures will hurt the whole industry, Corbett and others at the conference said. About 40 percent of electricity in Pennsylvania comes from coal, and the grid is expected to rely on coal for several more years because gas-fired plants haven't been built or connected to pipelines and transmission lines.

“Logically, there should be a significant increase in coal power. But it's the opposite,” said John Pippy, a former state senator from Moon who is CEO of the Pennsylvania Coal Alliance. “It's all pain and no gain.”

The country's coal production in the last three months of 2013 reached its lowest level since 1993, according to the federal Energy Information Administration.

Pippy said he's worried a hot summer will put the same strain that a cold winter put on the power grid, when gas shortages and volatile prices roiled the market and prompted price spikes for customers.

Such economic concerns were a theme at the conference.

“I know people in Philadelphia don't care about the faces of coal. But they'll care about the price of their electricity if it goes up 20 percent,” said Tom Crooks, who runs the underground division for Washington County-based R.G. Johnson Co., a coal mining contractor.

He was among contractors, a miner and the owner of a small business in Greene County who met with Corbett to tell him why they fear further reductions in coal production.

“It's very scary for them,” said Autumn Laskody of Waynesburg, who owns a salon that serves many mining families.

David Conti is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-388-5802 or dconti@tribweb.com.

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