Coal-Country Democrats Nervously Await EPA Regulations for Power-Plant Emissions

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Sunflower Electric Cooperative's coal-fired power plant churns out electricity Thursday, Feb. 1, 2007 in Holcomb, Kan. Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius vetoed a bill allowing two additional coal-fired power plants at the location.
National Journal
Alex Brown
Sept. 18, 2013, 3:30 p.m.

Coal-coun­try Demo­crats aren’t eager to talk about the En­vir­on­ment­al Pro­tec­tion Agency’s new emis­sion reg­u­la­tions for power plants ex­pec­ted to be re­leased later this week, which could put them in a tough po­s­i­tion between the pres­sures of re­gion­al polit­ics and party loy­alty.

The new lim­its are ex­pec­ted to ef­fect­ively re­quire car­bon cap­ture — a still-de­vel­op­ing tech­no­logy — for all new coal-fired plants in or­der to meet emis­sion stand­ards. That has drawn back­lash from many in the coal in­dustry, but most Demo­crats from coal-heavy re­gions have largely been hes­it­ant to speak out.

The reg­u­la­tions are a corner­stone of Pres­id­ent Obama’s ac­tion plan for ad­dress­ing cli­mate change, with coal-burn­ing power plants known as one of the largest sources of green­house gases in the coun­try. But the coal in­dustry, pro­du­cers of a re­l­at­ively cheap and abund­ant en­ergy source, would be hit hard by the EPA rules, as high­er op­er­at­ing costs for power plants lead util­it­ies to switch to lower-cost and lower-emit­ting nat­ur­al gas.

Only one of the sev­en Demo­crat­ic mem­bers of the Con­gres­sion­al Coal Caucus would com­ment on the reg­u­la­tions; sev­er­al said they were with­hold­ing their re­ac­tions un­til the policy is of­fi­cial. Oth­er coal-coun­try can­did­ates — in­clud­ing Rep. Allyson Schwartz, D-Pa., a can­did­ate for gov­ernor in her state, and West Vir­gin­ia Sec­ret­ary of State Nat­alie Ten­nant, a Sen­ate hope­ful — also did not of­fer com­ment on the new stand­ards. Ten­nant has said she dis­agrees with some of Obama’s coal policies.

Coal in­dustry lead­ers say they ex­pect some politi­cians to break their si­lence soon. “It has not had the level of dis­cus­sion it should be hav­ing in Con­gress,” said Nancy Gravatt, seni­or vice pres­id­ent of com­mu­nic­a­tions for the Na­tion­al Min­ing As­so­ci­ation. “I ex­pect there will be more [Demo­crats op­pos­ing it].” Ohio Coal As­so­ci­ation Pres­id­ent Zane Daniels ad­ded, “I think it’s im­port­ant that we see bi­par­tis­an op­pos­i­tion to the pro­posed reg­u­la­tions.”

Not every Demo­crat has been si­lent on the is­sue, however. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., voiced his op­pos­i­tion at a Tues­day Sen­ate hear­ing. “We’re get­ting the liv­ing crap beat out of us by this ad­min­is­tra­tion,” he said. “They just beat the liv­ing day­lights out of little West Vir­gin­ia, but they sure like what we pro­duce.”

An­oth­er West Vir­gin­ia Demo­crat, Rep. Nick Ra­hall, was equally vehe­ment in his stance. “I am dead-set against the EPA and their scheme to is­sue emis­sions stand­ards that would make it im­possible for new coal-fired power plants to be con­struc­ted,” he said in a state­ment.

Their po­s­i­tions were wel­come news for Bill Raney, pres­id­ent of the West Vir­gin­ia Coal As­so­ci­ation. “This doesn’t have a thing to do with par­tis­an polit­ics,” he said. “It shouldn’t make a dif­fer­ence to any of them, wheth­er they’re Demo­crat or Re­pub­lic­an; it’s simply wrong.”

Ken­tucky Sec­ret­ary of State Al­is­on Lun­der­gan Grimes, who is chal­len­ging Sen­ate Minor­ity Lead­er Mitch Mc­Con­nell, R-Ky., is­sued her own push­back on the new stand­ards. “Coal keeps the lights on in Ken­tucky — plain and simple — and I will not stand idle as over­reach­ing reg­u­la­tion ad­versely im­pacts jobs and middle-class fam­il­ies,” she said.

Sens. Joe Don­nelly, D-Ind., and Robert Ca­sey, D-Pa., would not of­fer com­ment on the reg­u­la­tions un­til they are made of­fi­cial, but Don­nelly urged a fo­cus on ex­ist­ing tech­no­logy and Ca­sey praised coal’s role as a cheap en­ergy source.

Such breaks with Obama’s policy are of­ten ne­ces­sary for Demo­crats from coal-heavy areas, said one Pennsylvania Demo­crat­ic op­er­at­ive who re­ques­ted an­onym­ity to pro­tect a cur­rent can­did­ate. “People have a gen­er­al per­cep­tion of the parties,” he said. “[Demo­crats] al­most have to be more vo­cal than the Re­pub­lic­ans some­times be­cause you don’t want to be painted with that broad brush. It also kind of sym­bol­izes who you’re for. It’s not just an en­ergy is­sue; it’s a cul­tur­al is­sue. Be­ing against coal can mean to voters that you’re against the work­ing class, you’re an elit­ist.”

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