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Coal industry, EPA pollution rules become part of Corbett-Wolf race

| Wednesday, June 4, 2014, 11:33 p.m.
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review
Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett speaks onstage during his election night party at the Omni William Penn Hotel in Downtown on Monday, May 19, 2014.
Democrat Tom Wolf easily won his party's nomination for governor.

When the Obama administration announced plans to reduce carbon pollution by 30 percent nationwide, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett was among the first to defend the state's coal industry.

The Republican from Shaler rebuked the Environmental Protection Agency plan as “job-killing,” and dubbed it the latest front in the “war on coal.”

Corbett's campaign immediately pulled the Democratic nominee for governor, York businessman Tom Wolf, into the fray.

“If President Obama and Tom Wolf had their way, they would be handing out pink slips to 62,000 Pennsylvanians,” Corbett said in a campaign statement issued shortly after the EPA announcement.

For a politically vulnerable Corbett who trails by a wide margin in early polls, a potential threat to the commonwealth's coal industry could offer a foothold, political experts say.

Christopher Borick, political science professor at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, said it's an issue in which Corbett can play offense in the name of saving Pennsylvania jobs. Meanwhile, proposals to impose a severance tax on natural gas drilling are at odds with Corbett's no-tax pledge.

“On shale gas, he's been pushed into a corner,” Borick said. “There are pockets in Pennsylvania where coal is still a major part of the local economy. In those areas, the governor, I think, has an opportunity to score.”

Pennsylvania was the nation's fourth-largest producer of coal in 2013, according to state data. The American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity says that 40 percent of the state's energy portfolio comes from coal, compared with 22 percent for natural gas.

The coal industry supports between 62,000 and 63,000 jobs, about 8,100 of which are mining jobs.

Pennsylvania would need to reduce emissions collectively by about a third to meet the EPA's 2030 goal for pollution reduction, according to estimates. John Pippy, CEO of the Pennsylvania Coal Alliance, said the ramifications have yet to be fully understood. The EPA won't have its final rules set until 2015. Pippy is only so hopeful.

“The talking points haven't meshed with the reality of regulations in the past,” he said.

Wolf has made Pennsylvania's energy industry a cornerstone of his campaign platform. On Monday, he did not rush to throw support behind Obama's plan. He touted its flexibility but cautioned against additional regulatory burdens. Wolf called out Corbett for weak policies.

“With the right leadership that recognizes the importance of a variety of energy sources, we can have a profitable energy sector, a growing economy, and meaningfully address the need for cleaner air,” Wolf's statement continued.

Jeff Brauer, a political science professor at Keystone College in Lackawanna County, said the EPA announcement comes at a good time for Corbett.

“There's no doubt Tom Corbett will continue to push this issue in the campaign,” Brauer said. “For Pennsylvanians who grew up in the era of coal, their sons and daughters, and coal miners themselves, it's an important part of their story and for the culture of Pennsylvania.”

Melissa Daniels is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-380-8511 or mdaniels@tribweb.com.

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