FARMINGTON – Rousing painful memories from a painful winter, Gov. Tom Corbett elicited a shiver throughout the audience.
“Freezing in the dark is not an environmental victory,” he said Tuesday afternoon at Nemacolin Woodlands Resort.
The Republican governor was the keynote speaker at the third annual National Coal Conference, and made that remark in reference to the strain placed on the nation’s electric grid this winter due partly to the shutdown of coal-fired power plants, including one each in Washington and Greene counties. The strain could have left widespread areas without electricity.
Corbett defended the use of coal, from opening to closing remarks then during a brief media briefing.
“I support coal energy and I support energy in Pennsylvania,” he said to healthy applause, shortly after ascending to the podium in the Grand Ballroom.
Coal remains prominent in Pennsylvania and many other states and nations, but has a bad name because of carbon dioxide emissions from burning and is subject to increasingly strict regulations from the Environmental Protection Agency.
Mitchell Power Station in Union Township and Hatfields Ferry Power Station near Carmichaels were regional coal-fired plants that closed in October.
“Forty percent of the energy portfolio in Pennsylvania is coal. You cannot make that disappear,” the governor said. “We have to resolve that we can cleanly burn coal and that we can protect the environment.”
Corbett criticized the Obama administration’s stance on coal and lamented the impact quick closures of power plants and mines have had, and could continue to have, on industries and supply-chain businesses, as well as local municipalities and their economies.
“Working against coal solves nothing,” said the governor, who will be seeking re-election this fall. “It creates problems like unemployment. Unemployment has gone down from 8 percent when I started (to 6.0 percent currently), but I’d like to see unemployment come down in Fayette County, Greene County, towns like Fairchance and Waynesburg that will be drastically altered.
“We will continue to push the federal government to, in my view, come to its senses.”
John Pippy, chief executive officer of the Pennsylvania Coal Alliance and a former state legislator, introduced Corbett. He praised the governor for his support of the coal industry.
“He believes that coal should be part of the base load, but not all of the portfolio,” Pippy said. “He wants it to be diversified.”
Earlier Tuesday, Pippy’s organization set up a private meeting with Corbett and 14 residents of Western Pennsylvania communities that depend on coal. Some are from Greene and Washington counties.
They met with the media following Corbett’s address and spoke about their conversations with the leader of the commonwealth.
One was Stephanie Paluda, business development manager with 84 Energy Supply, a division of 84 Lumber. She said her great-grandfather was a coal miner in Czechoslovakia and settled in Western Pennsylvania “specifically so he could make a living and support his family. This industry made it possible for members of my family to raise their families and attend college.”
Autumn Laskody said she was invited to the confab because she owns a hair salon and portrait photography business in Waynesburg. She said when people are out of work, she notices her business drops off because people have to watch their money.
Shortly before Corbett departed, a reporter brought up the grid again. It could easily be stressed again, and fairly soon.
“What will happen in July?” Corbett asked, managing little more than a semi-smile.