Coal production and the new Congress
Not long after Democrats swept into Congress last month, President Bush received a letter from three incoming Senate committee chairs that may one day prove important to people working in Campbell County's coal mines.
“We seek your commitment to work with the new Congress to pass meaningful climate change legislation in 2007,” the trio wrote in a letter dated Nov. 15.
“The U.S. must move quickly to adopt economy-wide constraints on domestic (greenhouse gas) emissions and then work with the international community to forge an effective and equitable global agreement.”
With those words, Sens. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., and Joe Liebermann, I-Conn., struck a much different course than that of their predecessors, particularly James Inhofe, R-Okla., who Boxer will replace on the Environmental and Public Works Committee.
Inhofe has repeatedly denounced global warming as an unproved theory while Boxer has pledged to hold hearings on the subject soon after she takes over the post.
As one Washington, D.C.-based coal lobbyist said last week: “Coal would not have had the resurgence it had over the last six years if (former vice president) Al Gore got elected. We probably would have seen a carbon tax or something like that, I think there's a fair chance you'll see it or see some progress toward it.”
Any greenhouse gas regulation could have potentially severe effects on Wyoming's economy and tax base if it results in reduced coal production, said Arch Coal spokesman Greg Schaefer. But short of raising red flags, he and other industry officials pledged to work with those in office.
“You would anticipate that those senators from coal-producing states would be supportive. The makeup of Congress is what it is,” Schaefer said. “We've worked with a Democratic Congress before.”
Former U.S. Sen. Tim Hutchinson, R-Ark., doesn't expect a drastic policy shift toward regulating greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide, which are produced when fossil fuels burn and contribute to global warming.
“It's interesting, I really don't think the agenda for the coal industry changes with the leadership in Congress,” said Hutchinson, now a lobbyist for Peabody Energy, which owns three Campbell County mines. “If there's any differentiation, it's geographic and not partisan.”
But campaign contributions to congressional candidates suggest otherwise. Sixteen of the top 20 recipients of coal industry campaign contributions during the 2006 race were Republicans, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a research group that tracks political donations.
While those contributions made up small portions of their campaign coffers, the top three recipients - Sens. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., George Allen, R-Va., and Jim Talent, R-Mo. - were all beaten in their Senate races. Each were reliable votes against environmental regulations.
Many officials said the November election increased chances for a greenhouse gas cap-and-trade system that would set a limit or “cap” on emissions. Such caps could then be met through pollution controls or trading credits that allow polluters to exceed the limits.
Others hope Rep. John Dingell, a Michigan Democrat expected to take over the House Energy and Commerce Committee, will blunt efforts to regulate carbon caps in an attempt to shield the auto industry. Still others see support from Senate Democrats in coal-producing states like Illinois, Colorado, West Virginia and Montana.
“Frankly, I think the balance of what we're hearing on feedback is that the Democrats, in an effort to kind of warm up Republicans, would like to move further ahead on energy security than the Republicans on energy security, so that would involve coal if we do that,” Rick Navarre, chief financial officer for Peabody Energy, said during an energy conference in Florida.
Energy security is generally code for coal-to-liquid projects, in which coal is converted to gasoline, and cleaner coal power plants, which have gained support from producers, electric utilities and some environmental groups. There's hope those from coal-producing states will support tax breaks and loans on such projects.
“I'm not sure it's a net win or a net loss. I think some of the knee-jerk reaction that Republicans are good and Democrats are bad is not founded,” said Robert Hickmott, who headed congressional affairs for the Environmental Protection Agency during the Clinton administration.
He now lobbies for several utility companies, as well as Rio Tinto Energy America, which operates three Campbell County area mines.
“I think what you're going to see is a lot of oversight and criticism of George Bush and the energy policy because an energy policy has not emerged,” Hickmott said. “What you might see is the beginnings of some voluntary measures and perhaps cap incentives for voluntary compliance.”
Stringent carbon dioxide limits or a mass replacement of coal plants with renewable resources both seem unlikely.
Hutchinson sees another angle.
No matter what Boxer or others might hope to do in Congress, legislation still has to make it across the president's desk and he has stood firm on climate change to this point.
“I think it's really too early to tell,” he said. “The White House has been opposed to a carbon cap-and-trade in the past and there's no reason to think that would change,” Hutchinson said.
“Even the advocates of the cap-and-trade program are saying it's a couple years off. You've got to build a political consensus ... this would be a pretty big change.”
- By PETER GARTRELL, News-Record Writer