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September 27, 2013

Group of lawmakers form 'Coal Caucus' to oppose new coal plant limits

HARRISBURG — Republican Congressman Tom Marino and a bipartisan group of state lawmakers have formed a “Coal Caucus” to oppose new strict federal emission limits on coal plants in Pennsylvania and other states.

Marino, who represents the 10th congressional district in northeast Pennsylvania, said President Barack Obama is waging a war on coal that’s creating economic hardship in coal-producing states.

“The Obama administration’s proposed rule to cap carbon emissions from new power plants is just another line of attack to make certain energy sources — sources like coal and fossil fuels — so expensive that the producers themselves go bankrupt,” Marino said.

More than a dozen state lawmakers from both major political parties joined the congressman in railing against the new federal regulations, with Republicans blaming Democrats and Democrats focusing their concern on Washington.

Sen. Gene Yaw, R-Lycoming County, was named chairman of the Coal Caucus. Along with Obama, he added Pennsylvania Attorney General Kathleen Kane, a Democrat, to the list of villains.

Yaw said 12 attorneys general from other states signed a letter arguing that the new Department of Environmental Protection carbon dioxide air quality standards overstepped the agency’s authority. “By doing nothing,” he said, “the attorney general in Pennsylvania has made Pennsylvania an unwitting participant in the war on coal.”

Joe Peters, a spokesman for Kane, said she had not been approached by other attorneys general about a position paper on the EPA rule. But, Peters added, Kane is now monitoring the situation.

More than 40,000 people currently work in the coal industry in Pennsylvania, according to the Pennsylvania Coal Alliance. Phil Smith, a spokesman for the United Mine Workers of America, said tougher clean air standards approved during President George H. W. Bush’s administration during the early 1990s resulted in the loss of 20,000 to 25,000 jobs in two years.

Smith said China and other emerging industrial nations are expanding their use of coal at a time the U.S. is restricting fossil fuels to generate electricity, causing the export of jobs.

“We’re leading with our chin instead of our brain,” Smith said. “The fact is people around the world don’t view coal as the fuel of the past; they are accelerating their use.”

Democratic state lawmakers who joined the Coal Caucus freely criticized the EPA’s new rules capping the amount of carbon dioxide coal-burning power plants can emit, but they have shied away from taking aim at Kane.

“I can’t speak for the attorney general,” said Sen. John Wozniak, D-Cambria County.

Wozniak said the EPA needs to soften its position, calling the rules, “unnecessarily harsh.”

Earlier this summer, FirstEnergy announced plans to shut down two coal plants in Fayette and Washington counties because of the cost of adding pollution controls to meet the federal standards. The plants generate enough energy to power tens of thousands of homes and business, and employ 380 people.

Pennsylvania has 39 coal-fired power plants. They produce 55 percent of the state’s energy needs, state officials said. Utility companies are replacing coal with natural gas plants, which now produce only five percent of the state’s energy, as they adjust to new clear air standards.

Natural gases gains are particularly strong in the area in and around the Marcellus shale region in southeastern Pennsylvania.

Two coal-fired power plants — in Shamokin Dam (Snyder County) and New Castle (Lawrence County) — are in the process of converting from coal to natural gas power, government records show. A third, in Monaca (Beaver County), has announced plans to add natural gas power without completely abandoning coal, state records show.

In addition, the EPA has received air quality plans for seven new natural gas plants. Four other natural gas power plant projects have been announced, but company officials have not submitted required paperwork yet, according to the records.

The Sunbury Generation facility in Shamokin Dam is one of the oldest coal-fired plants in the country. Now the company that owns it is working to convert the plant to natural gas by 2015. That means the plant will continue to operate, albeit with fewer workers.

Federal environmental studies have identified fossil-fuel power plants as the leading contributor to greenhouse gas emissions in the country, with coal producing more carbon dioxide than any other fuel.

EPA officials contend the only way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide spewing into the air.

John Finnerty works in the Harrisburg Bureau for Community Newspaper Holdings Inc. He can be reached by email at jfinnerty@cnhi.com or on Twitter @cnhipa.

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