By MARC LEVY – Associated Press
HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) – Republican Bill McSwain pledges to be a pro-energy governor by “turning on the tap on natural gas.” Another hopeful, Dave White, says he wants Pennsylvania to become “the energy capital of the world.” A third candidate, Lou Barletta, says an abundance of natural gas in the ground without a pipeline is “like being in college and drinking a keg of beer without a tap.”
In Pennsylvania, the second-largest natural gas producer after Texas, the industry’s importance is emerging as a hot topic among Republican contenders for governor ahead of the May 17 state primary.
The issue has taken on a new urgency in the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which reignited debate on how to improve domestic energy production and prompted President Joe Biden to pledge to increase liquefied natural gas exports to Europe in order to curb Russia’s influence there to undermine.
However, despite promises made by Republican candidates, there are limitations on what they could do while in office. While governors have influence over state agencies and legislation, they have limited ability to grant what the industry really wants, like the construction of interstate pipelines and large-scale processing plants. Because other countries and federal politics are involved.
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“They don’t control these things,” said David Masur, executive director of PennEnvironment, a Philadelphia-based environmental group. “Her power ends when she is elected, at the Pennsylvania border. And when other states have aggressive climate change agendas, clean energy agendas, the market makes clean energy competitive, if not cheaper, than fossil fuels.”
Industry leaders describe Pennsylvania’s drilling as strong and access to gas as plentiful, with established pipeline rights of way and thousands of wells waiting to be drilled into the country’s most prolific gas reservoir, the Marcellus Shale.
But for examples of Pennsylvania’s borders, look no further than its borders.
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States are unlikely to change this position any time soon.
New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy, who was reelected last year, is sticking to his promise to achieve 100% clean energy in the state by 2050 and reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 80%, his office said.
Interstate pipelines and LNG plants also require federal approval and face opposition from environmental groups, who say natural gas cannot be a long-term energy solution because it releases the powerful greenhouse gas methane.
The industry and its Republican allies claim that natural gas can make the US more energy independent and counteract Russian influence, while also being more environmentally friendly than higher-carbon oil and coal.
Toby Rice, president and CEO of Pittsburgh-based gas exploration company EQT Corp., predicts it would require 6,500 miles of pipeline and $250 billion in US LNG infrastructure to supply the US and Europe and to significantly reduce coal global use by 2030.
Still, scientists are increasingly concerned about the growing amount of natural gas infrastructure and say it will jeopardize efforts to cut carbon emissions to needed targets.
The presumptive Democratic nominee for governor, Attorney General Josh Shapiro, speaks of balancing natural gas with the expansion of renewable energy.
Shapiro ran for attorney general and vowed to hold the gas industry accountable. He questioned President Donald Trump’s administration’s move to allow LNG to be transported by rail, indicted several companies and released a grand jury report on the need to tighten industry regulations.
During his campaign for governor, he has held a middle position – partly a nod to influential unions whose workers build power plants, pipelines and refineries. He says it’s a “wrong choice” to choose between “environmental justice and the dignity of work and energy opportunities.”
The current governor, Democrat Tom Wolf, has what environmental activists and industry see as mixed.
Wolf, which is constitutionally limited, aims to make Pennsylvania the first major fossil-fuel state to introduce a carbon pricing plan, though its regulatory efforts are currently being held up in court.
At the same time, he pursued higher taxes on natural gas production but missed meaningful opportunities to combat greenhouse gases, environmentalists say.
He also championed industry: his administration issued permits for large gas-fired power plants, pipelines, and refineries, and Wolf himself signed tax breaks to attract natural gas synthesis plants.
Now interest in building large, natural gas-fueled projects is rising, and a new governor could take office in 2023, with the possibility of landing some.
Fulfilling Biden’s promise to boost natural gas exports to Europe could mean expanding existing pipelines through Pennsylvania and building new LNG terminals, possibly along the Delaware River near Philadelphia.
“We believe Pennsylvania has the opportunity to become a major LNG exporter,” Rice said.
Beyond LNG, industry promoters are optimistic about landing a gas-powered hydrogen-fuel plant — funded by Biden’s Infrastructure Act — in southwestern Pennsylvania, as well as building refineries in rural Pennsylvania’s gas fields to make fertilizers, chemical products and fuels.
Meanwhile, a proposal for an LNG plant in northeastern Pennsylvania that would involve shipping its product by rail to an export terminal in the Philadelphia area is being shelved — and Biden’s administration plans to scrap the LNG-by-rail rule from Trump -era suspend.
While a governor may not single-handedly give the gas industry what it wants, he or she could be helpful, industry advocates say.
Barletta, White, McSwain and others in the nine-man GOP primary field for governor talk about getting rid of unnecessary regulations or speeding up approval times.
That could help attract a big project, as could cutting Pennsylvania’s corporate tax rate, said Gene Barr, president and CEO of the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry.
Being a vocal advocate could also help, such as lobbying a fellow governor in a neighboring state to approve a pipeline, Barr said.
In recent days, the Republican-controlled Pennsylvania Legislature enacted a pro-industry package of measures, including a resolution asking the governors of New York and New Jersey to allow gas pipelines to be built from Pennsylvania.
During that debate, Democratic MP Greg Vitali said the idea that a bill would affect those governors was “imaginative.”
“They will make their own decisions about which pipelines to accept,” Vitali said, “and which pipelines to reject.”
Associated Press writer Michael Catalini of Trenton, New Jersey contributed to this report.
Follow Marc Levy on Twitter at www.twitter.com/timelywriter.
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