Mired in the lowest poll numbers of his 2-month-old bid for the Republican presidential nomination, Texas Gov. Rick Perry went to a West Mifflin steel plant to roll out a pro-energy and anti-regulatory economics plan that he said would create more than 1 million jobs.
Republicans have long argued that unfettered energy production is needed to solve the nation's economic problems, and Mr. Perry took that about as far as it can go, advocating more drilling from Alaska to the Gulf of Mexico to federal lands out west, crippling the Environmental Protection Agency and blocking air pollution standards.
Standing in an enormous steel coil dock at the U.S. Steel Irvin plant Friday, he said his efforts would kick-start the entire United States economy and especially help industries like those around Western Pennsylvania. That includes coal and natural gas extraction and related manufacturing, such as the transmission pipeline U.S. Steel makes to service Marcellus Shale gas drillers.
"When you talk about Western Pennsylvania, you're known for producing some pretty good quarterbacks. I want Western Pennsylvania to quarterback a new energy revolution that creates jobs all across America," he said.
There also was frequent criticism of President Barack Obama, who Mr. Perry said "would kill domestic jobs through aggressive regulations, while I would create 1.2 million American jobs through safe and aggressive energy exploration at home. President Obama would keep us more dependent on hostile sources of foreign energy, while my plan would make us more secure by tapping America's true energy potential."
Mr. Perry's Pittsburgh-area speech was his first policy event of the GOP campaign, while opponents Mitt Romney and Herman Cain, who sit atop national polls, had already released detailed economic plans. Mr. Perry said he would release further plans on tax and entitlement reform and cutting spending soon.
Mr. Obama's re-election team criticized the Perry plan's reliance on fossil fuels, especially at a time when competitors such as China are investing heavily in green energy. "Gov. Perry's energy policy isn't the way to win the future, it's straight out of the past -- doubling down on finite resources with no plan to promote innovation or to transition the nation to a clean energy economy," Obama 2012 press secretary Ben LaBolt said.
Jim Burn, the chair of Pennsylvania's Democratic Party, said, "Rick Perry and all the Republican candidates support economic policies that benefit special interests and the super wealthy over the middle class."
Environmental groups were quick to criticize his proposals to remove pollution controls on the coal and natural gas industries.
"Gov. Perry is using the economy as an excuse to push the agenda of big polluters, but the health and welfare of Pennsylvanians would be the real victims of this plan," PennEnvironment field director Adam Garber said.
U.S. Steel bought Dallas-based pipeline firm Lone Star Technologies in 2007, and U.S. Steel general counsel Jim Garraux and other steel and energy executives were on hand to greet the presidential hopeful.
U.S. Steel "has seen first-hand Gov. Perry's ability to promote economic development and to attack job-killing, unnecessary regulation on business," Mr. Garraux said.
Of the 200-odd people attending the speech, about a dozen were United Steelworkers Union members, according to spokesman Wayne Ranick. The USW does not support Mr. Perry, and union leaders declined invitations to attend the event.
When he talked about drilling in Alaska, Mr. Perry acknowledged he'd need congressional support to open the state's coastal plain for exploration. He touted his support for the controversial Keystone XL pipeline that would transport oil from Canada to market hubs in the Midwest, saying the fuel would otherwise go overseas.
Yet for a speech delivered in Western Pennsylvania, Mr. Perry seemed to grow less specific when talking about the Marcellus Shale gas boom that's transformed much of the area. One thing's clear: He's for it.
Mr. Perry called the Marcellus Shale industry a "game-changer" that lowers energy costs and provides new jobs in manufacturing and production that spring up around the extraction. The Utica Shale, which is deeper than the Marcellus and contains oil and gas, also should be enthusiastically explored, he said.
Mr. Perry's campaign has pledged to translate the energy industry's success in Texas to the nation at large. It was in the Barnett Shale in Texas where drillers started using the controversial hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking," process to splinter rock and let natural gas escape.
It's a technology that's essentially made the Marcellus Shale gas accessible. Mr. Perry was quick to defend the fracking process as safe.
Tapping the full potential of the natural gas found inside the shale rock under Appalachia would create 250,000 new jobs in his 1.2 million job plan, he said -- but only by "getting the EPA out of the way."
Most Marcellus Shale regulation already comes from Harrisburg legislation or ordinances passed by local communities, and a Perry administration would keep it that way, he said.
Under his plan, state and local officials should regulate air and water quality, since those officials have to live with the consequences of their decisions. States would decide where to drill, and if they choose not to, the federal government would honor that -- though that decision would be the exception and not the norm, he said.
In Pennsylvania, campaigns have been launched to keep drilling out of state parks, where about 80 percent of the mineral rights that would be leased are privately owned. Though he was receptive to opening up federal land for drilling, Mr. Perry said he was opposed to drilling in the Everglades or Yellowstone National Park.