Two Pennsylvania legislators who have taken money from—and enthusiastically supported—the natural gas industry have teamed up to now praise coal.
State Sen. Gene Yaw (R-Williamsport), chair of the Environmental Resource and Energy Committee, and Rep. Tim Solobay (D-Canonsburg, Pa.) are co-chairs of the newly-established Coal Caucus.
It’s a strange move on their part, since both have praised natural gas as the economic future of Pennsylvania.
Yaw, in his first run for the Senate in 2008 accepted only $3,700 in campaign contributions from energy companies; the largest were $1,000 donations from Anadarko Petroleum and Chesapeake Energy. In his first re-election campaign in 2012, he received no contributions from the shale gas industry. He didn’t need it. Yaw leased 148 acres in Lycoming County to Anadarko, and was receiving royalty checks.
In March 2013, now in his second term, Yaw introduced two bills to expand natural gas usage in the state. When asked by WNEP-TV about a possible conflict-of-interest, Yaw replied he had signed his lease with Anadarko in 2006 before he was elected to the Senate; but in 2011, he renewed that lease for an additional five years.
“Conflict of interest is the most easily-thrown-about concept when you can’t think of anything else to say,” said Yaw. However, Eric Epstein of Rock the Capital, a watchdog on state government,countered Yaw’s cavalier attitude. “You can not simultaneously promote and regulate an industry, if you have the ability to pass and sponsor legislation that will increase your quarterly dividend.”
A week later, outside a meeting closed to the public to discuss issues related to Anadarko’s request to drill in Loyalsock State Forest, Jim Hamill of WNEP-TV again asked Yaw to discuss his ties to the shale drilling industry and about his possible conflict of interest. “No, and I don’t know what part of N-O you don’t understand. Last week we talked and you turned it into a totally negative article, something that should have never been done,” Yaw testily replied.
Among Democrats, Solobay received the most money from Big Energy, $60,325, according to Common Cause.
Act 13, which pretends to regulate the natural gas industry and the recently-developed process of hydraulic horizontal fracturing, better known as fracking, was signed on Feb. 14, 2012, by an enthusiastic Gov. Tom Corbett. It was a Valentine’s Day gift to Big Energy. The law is largely based upon language created by the conservative lobbying group, American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), and supported by Big Energy, the Republican-controlled state legislature, Gov. Corbett (who had taken more than $1.8 million in campaign donations from Big Energy), and the state’s conservative Chambers of Commerce. It was largely opposed by the Legislature’s Democrats, environmentalists, and persons in the health professions.
Fourteen months after Act 13 was passed, and with citizen protests increasing against fracking, Solobay declared he was frustrated “when people spin and challenge every bit of information and action out there with the sky-is-falling mentality.” He said the protestors “enjoy spreading fear and uneducated comments,” and erroneously stated, “A majority of the negative voices out there are paid activists [who] do nothing but spread false rumors and scare people.” He could easily have been talking about Big Energy, which has developed a massive public relations campaign that is adept at use of the mass media to spin the benefits of fracking while overlooking its health and environmental effects.
Some of those “false rumors” Solobay had claimed were spread by environmentalists might have come from the coal industry, which had been the primary provider of fuel for more than a century before being challenged first by nuclear energy and then by natural gas when horizontal fracking allowed gasextraction and distribution to became profitable in the Marcellus Shale.
Because of all the praise and attention state legislators were giving the gas industry and the attacks upon coal, coal executives had to believe they were now relegated to the role of an orphan in a Dickens novel. But they still had some influence, and that influence soon became apparent.
Never missing opportunities to seize votes and political contributions—and possibly realizing that the Marcellus Shale was becoming less profitable—Yaw and Solobay spun around and founded the Coal Caucus. First praising the gas drillers, Yaw then gushed, “Since the Industrial Revolution, coal has also fueled our economy having created hundreds of thousands of jobs. Collaboratively, we can change the dynamic of coal as an energy resource. . . . This Coal Caucus will serve as a champion for increased investment in coal and coal-driven technology.”
Solobay—who had received room and transportation from Consol Energy to the SuperBowl in 2011, not long after he had announced a grant to Consol for $529,156—was equally effusive in praising the coal industry: “Coal is critically important to our effort to reduce dependence on foreign fuels. In addition to being a major employer in Pennsylvania, the industry provides consumers with protection from energy shortages and price spikes.” Substitute “gas” for “coal” and you have almost a duplicate of Solobay’s views before he became the co-chair of the Coal Caucus.
It’s possible that Yaw and Solobay also figured out that, unlike the temporary workers in the gas fields whose families live in Oklahoma, Texas, and other states, most coal workers are permanent voting Pennsylvania residents.
Dory Hippauf, whose “Connecting the Dots” series details political and financial ties between politicians and the oil and gas industry, says Pennsylvanians have been shoved onto a Fossil Fuel Carousel and are now supposed to believe that the “dirty” coal energy that politicians said would be replaced by “clean” natural gas energy isn’t so dirty any more.
What is really dirty is the hypocrisy of politicians who fly like moths to the nearest financial light.
Dr. Brasch is an award-winning journalist and professor emeritus of mass communications. His latest book is Fracking Pennsylvania: Flirting with Disaster, an in-depth analysis of the effects of fracking upon public health, the environment, worker safety, and agriculture. Dr. Brasch also investigates the history of energy policies in the U.S. and the relationships between the energy companies and politicians at local, state, and federal levels.