Pennsylvania Coal Alliance arises amid heat of election year


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John Pippy must be a confident man.

He's opted to leave one organization with a poor reputation -- the state Senate -- to lead another group with an image problem: the coal industry.

Mr. Pippy, a Republican from Moon who represented the 37th District for nine years, will head the newly formed Pennsylvania Coal Alliance and steer its lobbying efforts at a time when the energy source is under attack from regulators and is competing in a market shifting toward cheaper alternatives like natural gas.

The recent focus in Pennsylvania energy has been on natural gas drilling in the Marcellus Shale, but the Coal Alliance has been working over the past year preparing efforts to influence Harrisburg policy on the famous black bedrock. The group formally announced itself Monday, in the heat of an election year, with plans to air advertisements attacking what it sees as burdensome regulation from Washington, D.C.

Mr. Pippy resigned from the state Senate earlier this month, and his move to the Coal Alliance was "probably the worst-kept secret we had," said the organization's president, George Ellis.

Mr. Pippy, who led his first board meeting Monday after a formal announcement was made, will oversee an initial annual budget of more than $1 million.

That money will be used to tell the "whole story of coal," said Mr. Ellis. That whole story will be told to Harrisburg, where the association will become the latest energy lobbying group trying to influence policy and media relations.

The Coal Alliance, with offices in Washington, Pa., and Harrisburg, formed after two organizations -- the Pennsylvania Coal Association and Families Organized to Represent the Coal Economy (FORCE) -- merged into one. Funding for the organization comes from member fees from more than 250 members.

"The industry is facing a frontal assault," said Mr. Ellis. "It was inevitable that the two groups would join together."

The Coal Alliance has affiliations with similar lobbying organizations in Washington, D.C., but said all funding for the group comes from local sources based in Pennsylvania.

Mr. Pippy said the focus will initially be on state affairs, and that he'll split his time between the group's two offices.

Pennsylvania ranks fourth in the nation in coal production, and exports about one-third of that power to out-of-state markets such as Baltimore and Washington, D.C.

The announcement of the new Coal Alliance comes just days after discouraging news for the coal industry from the Energy Information Agency. Preliminary data for the government organization's April report showed natural gas nearly edging coal in electricity production, the first time that the two energy sources have been so close since the agency began collecting data several decades ago.

Many major electric consumers such as factories and warehouses have made the shift for financial reasons, since natural gas prices are at the lowest level in decades as a result of supply ballooning due to shale drilling across the country.

At the same time, the oil and natural gas industries have launched a full-on ad assault targeting voters in swing states in anticipation of the November presidential election. The American Petroleum Institute and various oil companies have purchased television spots that encourage tapping domestic energy supplies and, while they often don't come out in support of a particular candidate, criticize regulations they say cost jobs.

The Coal Alliance has already produced two commercials that run on its website, with plans to expand advertising to other platforms.

Its new ads are not subtle. One opens with shots of a baseball field and a waving American flag, and casts coal as nothing less than an elixir that would remedy the country's debt and unemployment problems.

"You see, coal may be black, but it's also red, white and blue," the voiceover says.

businessnews

Erich Schwartzel: eschwartzel@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1455.


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