GOP’s energy promises face limits in Pa. governor’s race

GOP's energy promises face limits in Pa. governor's race thumbnail

Republican candidates for Pennsylvania governor are pledging to open up natural gas production, but there are constraints to what a governor can do

April 10, 2022, 3: 44 PM

6 min read

HARRISBURG, Pa. — Republican Bill McSwain pledges to be a pro-energy governor by “turning on the spigot of natural gas.” Another hopeful, Dave White, says he wants Pennsylvania “to be the energy capital of the world.” A third candidate, Lou Barletta, says having a glut of natural gas in the ground without a pipeline is “like being in college and having a keg of beer without a tap.”

In Pennsylvania, the No. 2 natural gas producer after Texas, the importance of the industry is emerging as a top issue among Republican contenders for governor before the state’s May 17 primary. The issue has become more urgent in the wake of Russia’s invasion and occupation of Ukraine. This has prompted a renewed debate about how to improve domestic energy production. President Joe Biden has pledged to increase liquefied natural gases exports to Europe to reduce Russia’s leverage.

Despite the Republican candidates’ promises, there are limitations on what they can do in office. Governors have some influence over state agencies and the lawmaking process, but they are limited in their ability to grant the industry what it really wants, such as interstate pipelines or large processing facilities. Because other states and federal policy are involved, this is why it’s so difficult for them to grant their industry’s wishes.

“They can’t control these things,” said David Masur (executive director of PennEnvironment), a Philadelphia-based environmental group. “Their power, should they be elected, ends at the Pennsylvania border. And if other states have aggressive climate-change agendas, clean-energy agendas, the marketplace makes clean energy competitive, if not cheaper, than fossil fuels.”

Industry leaders describe drilling in Pennsylvania as strong and access to gas as plentiful, with established pipeline rights of way and thousands of wells waiting to be drilled into the nation’s most prolific gas reservoir, the Marcellus Shale.

But you don’t need to look far for examples of Pennsylvania’s limits.

Democratic governors in neighboring New York and New Jersey have effectively blocked the construction of major interstate pipelines — the Constitution and the PennEast pipelines — carrying gas from Pennsylvania to big metropolitan areas and, possibly, yet-to-be-built facilities to liquefy and export liquefied natural gas, or LNG.

It seems unlikely that the states will change their position soon.

New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy, who won reelection last year, “remains committed” to his promise to reach 100% clean energy in the state and an 80% reduction in planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, his office said.

Interstate pipelines and LNG facilities also require federal approval and face opposition from environmental groups, which say natural gas mustn’t be a long-term energy solution because it emits the potent greenhouse gas methane. The industry and its Republican allies claim that natural gas can make America more energy independent and counter Russia’s influence while being more environmentally friendly than higher-carbon oils and coal.

Toby Rice, president and CEO of Pittsburgh-based gas exploration firm EQT Corp., projects that it would take 6,500 miles (over 10,400 km) of pipeline and $250 billion in LNG infrastructure in the U.S. to serve the U.S. and Europe and substantially cut coal use worldwide by 2030. Scientists are becoming more concerned about the increasing amount of natural gas infrastructure, and fear that it will hinder efforts to reduce carbon emissions. The presumed Democratic nominee for governor is state Attorney General Josh Shapiro. He talks about balancing natural gas and expanding renewable energy.

Shapiro was elected attorney general, promising to hold the gas industry responsible. He challenged President Donald Trump’s decision to allow LNG to ship by rail. He also criminally charged several companies, and issued a grand jury report on the need for tougher industry regulations. He has taken a middle of the road stance during his campaign for governor — partly to acknowledge influential labor unions whose members build power plants, refineries, and pipelines. He says it’s a “false choice” to have to pick between “environmental justice and the dignity of work and energy opportunity.”

The current governor, Democrat Tom Wolf, has what environmental activists and the industry see as a mixed bag.

Wolf is constitutionally term-limited and wants to make Pennsylvania the first major state to impose carbon pricing plans. However, his regulatory efforts are currently being blocked by the courts.

He also pursued higher taxes for natural gas production, but missed significant opportunities to reduce greenhouse gases, according to environmental advocates.

He also stood up for the industry. His administration issued permits to major gas-fired power stations, pipelines, and refineries. Wolf signed off on tax breaks that were intended to attract natural gas synthesis plants.

Now, interest in building big, natural gas-fueled projects is surging, and a new governor could take office in 2023 with opportunities to land some.

Fulfilling Biden’s promises to surge natural gas exports to Europe could mean expanding existing pipelines across Pennsylvania and building new LNG terminals, possibly along the Delaware River near Philadelphia.

” We believe that Pennsylvania has the potential to be a major LNG exporter.” Rice stated.

Industry boosters are optimistic about landing an LNG-fed hydrogen fuel station in southwestern Pennsylvania — which will be funded by Biden’s infrastructure law. They also plan to build refineries across Pennsylvania’s rural natural gas fields to make fertilizer and chemical products.

Meanwhile, a proposal for an LNG facility in northeastern Pennsylvania that had envisioned transporting its product by rail to a Philadelphia-area export terminal is on hold — and Biden’s administration is moving to suspend the Trump-era LNG-by-rail rule.

While a governor may not be able to give the gas industry everything it needs, industry advocates believe that he or she can be helpful.

Barletta, White, McSwain and others in the nine-person GOP primary field for governor talk about stripping down unnecessary regulations or speeding up permitting times.

This could help attract a large project, as well as slashing Pennsylvania’s corporate tax rate. Gene Barr, president and chief executive officer of the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry, said that this would help.

Being a vocal advocate could also help, such as lobbying a neighboring governor to allow a pipeline.

In recent days, Pennsylvania’s Republican-controlled Legislature took up a pro-industry package of measures, including a resolution urging the governors of New York and New Jersey to allow the construction of gas pipelines from Pennsylvania.

During that debate, Democratic state Rep. Greg Vitali said the idea that a legislative resolution would sway those governors is “fanciful.”

“They’re going to make their own decisions with regard to which pipelines they accept,” Vitali said, “and which pipelines they reject.”


Associated Press writer Michael Catalini in Trenton, New Jersey, contributed to this report.


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