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Energy policies heat up as campaign fodder

| Tuesday, Jan. 5, 2016, 11:00 p.m.
FILE - In this Dec. 13, 2015 file photo the sun sets behind an oil pump in the desert oil fields of Sakhir, Bahrain. Oil futures spiked briefly on Monday, Jan. 4, 2016, after the news that Saudi Arabia would cut diplomatic ties with Iran, a development that could be seen as a threat to oil supplies. Investors quickly discounted those fears, however. (AP Photo/Hasan Jamali, File)

The debate over energy policies and environmental regulations might play a larger role this election year, especially in Pennsylvania, as oil and gas production becomes a key economic issue and advocacy groups appeal to voters.

Republican presidential candidates could push the issue in key states where energy production relates to jobs and where Democrats might want to distance themselves from the Obama administration's legacy of environmental regulation, political analysts say.

“It's going to be in play among Pennsylvania voters because it transcends so many other policy areas: economic policy, foreign policy, national security, environmental protection,” said Christopher Borick, a political science professor at Muhlenberg College. “Even when it's not framed as energy, it has such broad implications, it's going to be prominent.”

Republican candidate Jeb Bush announced his proposed energy policy — which centers on repealing anti-fossil fuel regulations — during a rally last fall at the Washington County headquarters of shale gas producer Rice Energy.

The American Petroleum Institute, the nation's largest oil and gas lobbyist, has been airing television ads through its Vote4Energy campaign that features people listing industry accomplishments and one speaker saying, “I vote to keep it going.”

API President Jack Gerard said Tuesday in his annual State of American Energy address that he expects the issues to play a bigger role than normal in election-year discussions and Vote4Energy will play a role.

The group hasn't chosen a candidate to back but Gerard said the next president will have a choice: “to continue the United States' positive role of energy abundance, global leadership, domestic economic opportunity and environmental improvement or to dismantle the progress we've made by implementing policies borne from political ideology and unmoored to science or to fact.”

He cited nearly 100 pending federal regulations that target his industry — giving particular attention to rules limiting methane emissions from the oil and gas operations and carbon from power plants — saying they threaten economic growth and jobs. Federal regulations have punished coal mining and limited drilling on federal lands, industry groups say.

Republicans running for president or Congress might be successful seizing on that kind of message.

“Most Republicans are pretty lockstep in supporting the Keystone pipeline, supporting fracking, and in being vocal against the EPA regulations,” said Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston. “That puts them on the positive side of public opinion. The public tends to support developing energy supplies domestically, as opposed to environmental concerns.”

If candidates can frame environmental regulations and increased taxes on energy industries as job-killers “then you can take what is essentially an energy or environmental issue and change that into a jobs issue,” said J. Wesley Leckrone, a political scientist at Widener University.

Pennsylvania, with its 20 electoral votes and a contested Senate race, is a prime candidate for that kind of messaging, Borick said. The shale industry remains very visible here, despite a pullback in drilling prompted by lower prices.

Voters in energy-producing areas of the state don't want a candidate pushing policies that threaten the industry or low gas prices.

“We're seeing the benefits at the pump and at the furnace,” said David Spigelmyer, president of the North Fayette-based Marcellus Shale Coalition. He said the group will concentrate this year on pushing for more pipeline development and fighting Gov. Tom Wolf's move to enact an extraction tax.

Candidates will have less success with anti-regulatory rhetoric in larger urban areas, though, Leckrone said. Progressive Democrats there are more likely to support environmental curbs on industry even if they lead to higher energy costs.

“This is one of those issues where you don't run the same ads statewide,” Leckrone said.

Don't expect to see many ads from the Sierra Club, which supports many of the policies that Gerard railed against. Melinda Pierce, legislative director for the environmental group in Washington, said it is more likely to work through local clubs to fight the expansion of oil and gas operations than to go “belly to belly with API.”

“We don't fight them through the television waves. We're fighting them locally,” she said.

API did not say how much it planned to spend on the Vote4Energy campaign.

“We will continue to make significant investments in this campaign with significant activity focused at the state level,” spokesman Reid Porter said.

David Conti is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 412-388-5802 or dconti@tribweb.com.

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