Can lawmakers hailing from coal-dependent states like Kentucky and West Virginia find common ground with the Environmental Protection Agency as it writes climate-change rules that will hit coal hardest?
On its face, the relationship between coal-state lawmakers and the Obama administration is more strained than ever. Appalachia's coal industry stormed Capitol Hill last week with a host of hateful messages, including "Save America, Impeach Obama," and "Stop Obama and his EPA from Destroying America." Numerous lawmakers from coal states, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., rallied the crowd, estimated to be in the thousands, with anti-EPA messages.
"This EPA has been throwing regulatory stones, circumventing the Congress, and snubbing its nose at the legal process," Rahall said to the crowd.
Behind closed doors, EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy and some officials representing and working in the coal industry are meeting, including Kentucky Governor Steve Beshear in September, and last month Thomas Farrell, CEO of Dominion, an energy company whose portfolio includes coal-fired electricity.
Coal has historically been the dominant electricity source in the United States, but its share of the pie has gradually declined since 1993, when it accounted for 53 percent of our electricity mix. Today, it's closer to 43 percent. By 2040, the Energy Information Administration projects it will be 35 percent. This decline is due to a variety of factors, but in the last several years it's been the one-two punch of tougher environmental regulations and cheap, plentiful natural gas, which burns cleaner than coal.
What more could be done to improve relations between EPA and coal-dependent states? What changes could EPA make to its proposed carbon rules for power plants that would help ensure coal-dependent states like Kentucky and West Virginia won't face the brunt of the regulations' negative impact?
How important is carbon, capture and sequestration technology to these states' economies and the coal industry's overall ability to continue thriving in a carbon-constrained world?
How big of an impact do other executive-branch actions have, such as restricting mountaintop-removal mining and limiting the federal government's support for building overseas coal plants? This was another step the Treasury Department took last week.
Can the United States continue to be as reliant on coal as it has been in the past while also pursuing an aggressive climate-change agenda, as Obama is seeking? Or are these two inherently contradictory goals?
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