Wednesday Q+A with Sen. Shelley Moore Capito

The coal-state senator on coal, natural gas, and oversight of Scott Pruitt’s Environmental Protection Agency.

Shelley Moore Capito
AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite
Brian Dabbs
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Brian Dabbs
March 13, 2018, 8 p.m.

Sen. Shelley Moore Capito is a leading voice in the Senate on energy and environment policy. She hails from West Virginia—an engine for the country through its prolific coal and natural-gas production. Capito recently sat down with Brian Dabbs to discuss her elevated policy profile.

Nearly a year ago, President Trump tipped his hat to you as he unveiled his executive order on discarding the Obama-era Clean Power Plan and lifting the ban on federal leasing for coal production. How has your relationship with the administration grown since then?

I would say the president is very aware of coal country and coal employment. And I think he sort of—because I am from West Virginia and that’s the heart of coal country—sees me as one [and] the same. And so, I’m always reassuring him that things are picking up, moving in the right direction.

Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt recently told CBS that the EPA’s mission is neither to protect the environment nor business, but to implement the laws on the books. Are you concerned at all that the agency is neglecting its core responsibilities?

The reason I’m not concerned is because I experienced over the last eight years how a majorly aggressive EPA can wreak havoc on certain regions of the country without regards to any economic effects. We begged the EPA to come to our state to listen, just to listen. And the best response I got was, “Well, we’re coming to Pittsburgh.” Pruitt came to Charleston. He held two days of meetings there. And he didn’t hear, “Yeah, yeah, it’s gotta be coal.” He heard a whole variety of things on the environment side, the economic side, and folks in the middle. … Where I would differ with the administrator is I think the Environmental Protection Agency is in charge of protecting the environment.

The Commerce Department’s chief science agency, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, says the past three years are the hottest on record. Is this administration doing enough to address climate change?

That is such a hot political issue. The world was going to fall apart when we dropped out of the Paris accord. As far as I can tell, it has not fallen apart. I just think we’ve got to keep working towards [combating] what we know are pollutants. I live in Charleston, West Virginia, and I’ve lived there for 40 years at least. And when we were first married, we were living on a hill and there were huge chemical plants. And literally, however the wind was blowing, you could smell the chemical plants. It got into your house and everything. It’s not like that anymore. So, I think we need to celebrate our successes and keep moving toward that. Whether that impacts the temperatures, I’ll leave that to the scientists.

Pruitt has been dogged in recent weeks by a few controversies. Should the Environment and Public Works Committee be conducting more oversight of internal activity at the agency?

I think oversight is exceedingly important. I think the press has obviously been integral in shining a light on this. I said publicly I thought the planes were just as safe in coach. I hope I’m just as safe in coach. … I haven’t really seen the committee aggressively address it. Maybe we need to be more aggressive. I think it’s getting taken care of. I’ve been kinda harsh on [Pruitt] here. I do want to say he’s been very courageous. He’s done exactly what the president told him that he wanted him to do.

Natural gas is booming. West Virginia sits atop two major shale formations. Can you discuss the current relationship between coal and natural gas, which are competitors?

When the Marcellus shale discoveries began and the horizontal drilling began, there was tension between coal and natural gas within our state. It was also when coal was heading into enormous headwinds with the [Obama] administration. I think there was a meeting of the minds, which I encouraged folks to do, which basically said, “Look, we’re all in this together. Our boats are going to rise and fall at the same time.” And so, any kind of tension there has pretty much eased away. Natural gas has made a big difference in our state. It’s in the north north-central part of our state, which is actually the area of the state that I was born and raised. That’s the old steel area. It really had a major downturn.

You’re now on the Energy Committee. You’re also on the Environment and Public Works, Commerce, and Appropriations committees. That’s the whole constellation of panels that influence energy policy. How will your elevated profile translate to more influence on the chamber’s work as a whole?

I think the new [Energy Committee] assignment really puts me more in the natural-gas space than EPW. And I need to be there because of the growing industry. It’s kinda hard for me to brag about myself, but I have a very good knowledge base in energy. I can hear the barges going up the river and see the coal practically from my house. I’ve lived in this arena.

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