Coal-Country Roads Can Take You to the Place You Belong

Mountain State Democrats plead with Gina McCarthy to listen directly to those most impacted by regulations addressing climate change.

Coal industry backers protest the Obama administration's environmental policies at a rally outside the Capitol on Oct. 28, 2013.
National Journal
Amy Harder
Oct. 31, 2013, 12:06 p.m.

It must have been fate.

Three months nearly to the day after first in­vit­ing En­vir­on­ment­al Pro­tec­tion Agency Ad­min­is­trat­or Gina Mc­Carthy to vis­it West Vir­gin­ia’s coal fields — and get­ting no of­fi­cial an­swer back — Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., just happened to run in­to her again in a Cap­it­ol Hill el­ev­at­or on Thursday.

“I had a chance to talk with her, and asked, ‘Gina, can we get you to West Vir­gin­ia?’ And she says — she didn’t hes­it­ate — ‘Sure, let’s work on it,’ ” Manchin told Na­tion­al Journ­al Daily shortly after the chance en­counter.

“The group back home would ex­plain where they’re com­ing from and why it’s caus­ing them so much heartache,” Manchin said of Mc­Carthy’s po­ten­tial vis­it to the Moun­tain State.

On Aug. 1, Manchin and oth­er West Vir­gin­ia Demo­crats met with Mc­Carthy at the White House to talk about how EPA’s ac­tions on a host of fronts, and es­pe­cially cli­mate change, could have a neg­at­ive im­pact on the state’s coal-de­pend­ent eco­nomy. That’s when Manchin and his col­leagues first in­vited her to the state. Mc­Carthy ac­cep­ted but no trip ma­ter­i­al­ized. Manchin is hope­ful the second time is the charm.

“I think she’s go­ing to do it,” Manchin said Thursday. “I’m go­ing to stay on top of it and get a yes or no. She prom­ised us that she’d do it.”

A seni­or EPA of­fi­cial in­dic­ated a vis­it was pos­sible but didn’t make any prom­ises.

“Ad­min­is­trat­or Mc­Carthy ap­pre­ci­ates the in­vit­a­tion from Sen­at­or Manchin to travel to West Vir­gin­ia and hear from the state’s res­id­ents about re­du­cing car­bon pol­lu­tion and de­vel­op­ing an en­ergy eco­nomy for the fu­ture,” said Tom Reyn­olds, as­so­ci­ate ad­min­is­trat­or of EPA’s Of­fice of Ex­tern­al Af­fairs and En­vir­on­ment­al Edu­ca­tion. “Her staff is act­ively look­ing for op­por­tun­it­ies for her to vis­it the Moun­tain State.”

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 earli­er this week wav­ing signs full of hate­ful mes­sages like “Save Amer­ica, Im­peach Obama,” and “Stop Obama and his EPA from Des­troy­ing Amer­ica.” Nu­mer­ous law­makers from the re­gion, in­clud­ing Manchin, 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 told the pro­test­ers.

Sev­er­al ac­tions EPA has taken un­der Pres­id­ent Obama over the last five years have had a det­ri­ment­al ef­fect on the coal in­dustry, and es­pe­cially Ap­palachi­an coal, which is dirti­er than coal from out West and of­ten is pro­duced with the en­vir­on­ment­ally con­tro­ver­sial moun­tain­top-re­mov­al min­ing pro­cess. EPA’s ac­tions rep­res­ent sig­ni­fic­ant pro­gress in pub­lic-health pro­tec­tions, in­clud­ing against mer­cury pol­lu­tion.

The rules EPA is writ­ing now to con­trol car­bon emis­sions from the na­tion’s power plants will be the biggest blow yet to hit the coal in­dustry, which re­lies on the dirti­est fossil fuel by far. Coal-burn­ing emits a third more car­bon than oil and al­most twice that of nat­ur­al gas, ac­cord­ing to EPA stat­ist­ics. Draft rules tar­get­ing coal-fired power plants not yet built would re­quire car­bon cap­ture and se­quest­ra­tion tech­no­logy, which is costly and not yet com­mer­cially avail­able, ac­cord­ing to most ex­perts.

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 the 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.

“She has a right to ex­plain her po­s­i­tion, and we have a right for her to hear our po­s­i­tion,” said Manchin, who is or­gan­iz­ing a let­ter that the state’s Demo­crat­ic del­eg­a­tion plans to send early next week form­ally in­vit­ing Mc­Carthy to West Vir­gin­ia.

Manchin and oth­er coal-state law­makers are out­raged that the 11 listen­ing ses­sions EPA is hold­ing on its car­bon reg­u­la­tions don’t go to the coun­try’s most coal-de­pend­ent states like Wyom­ing, West Vir­gin­ia, and Ken­tucky, the top three coal pro­du­cers in the coun­try, re­spect­ively, ac­cord­ing to EIA data.

In fact, EPA isn’t in­ten­tion­ally avoid­ing these states. The ses­sions are aligned with each of its re­gion­al of­fices, which are in ma­jor cit­ies like San Fran­cisco, Bo­ston, At­lanta, and Phil­adelphia (Pennsylvania is the coun­try’s fourth-largest coal-pro­du­cing state). Ap­palachia law­makers are en­raged non­ethe­less.

“They won’t even come to coal coun­try to hold their hear­ings,” Ra­hall said at the rally. “You want a fight about beans, go to Bo­ston. Want to fight about sour­dough bread, go to San Fran­cisco. But you want to fight about coal, you come over to coal coun­try.”

West Vir­gin­ia’s seni­or sen­at­or, re­tir­ing Demo­crat Jay Rock­e­feller, is the out­lier among Ap­palachia law­makers and did not at­tend this week’s rally. When asked this week wheth­er Mc­Carthy should vis­it the state, he re­spon­ded: “Yes, if she wants to do that.”

“That’s the ‘beat up on coal, we want dirty coal not clean coal’ group,” Rock­e­feller said, im­pli­citly re­fer­ring to the politi­cians ur­ging Mc­Carthy to vis­it the state. “If they were fight­ing for clean coal, I’d be with them. But they’re not.”¦ She [Mc­Carthy] knows what she’s go­ing hear.”

Mc­Carthy’s po­ten­tial vis­it to West Vir­gin­ia would carry with it sig­ni­fic­ant sym­bol­ic weight, giv­en the pres­sure she’s got­ten and be­cause of events like the coal rally this week that paint a po­lar­iz­ing pic­ture of EPA’s out­reach to the coal in­dustry.

But it’s less po­lar­iz­ing be­hind closed doors, where Mc­Carthy has hos­ted nu­mer­ous meet­ings that carry more sub­stant­ive weight than any vis­it could.

Ac­cord­ing to an EPA of­fi­cial, these are re­cent meet­ings she or her top aides have had with of­fi­cials rep­res­ent­ing or work­ing in the coal in­dustry: Last week she met with Thomas Far­rell, CEO of Domin­ion, a ma­jor en­ergy com­pany whose port­fo­lio in­cludes coal-fired power plants. Earli­er this week, EPA con­vened a meet­ing with aides of sev­er­al gov­ernors from states in­clud­ing Col­or­ado, Wyom­ing, North Car­o­lina, and Ok­lahoma. In Septem­ber she met with Ken­tucky Gov. Steve Be­s­hear, a Demo­crat. Also that month, she met with CEOs of the Edis­on Elec­tric In­sti­tute’s mem­ber com­pan­ies, in­clud­ing Nick Akins of Amer­ic­an Elec­tric Power and Thomas Fan­ning of South­ern Com­pany.

Some of these util­it­ies are with­hold­ing their judg­ment about how Mc­Carthy has been to work with as she rolls out EPA’s am­bi­tious cli­mate-change agenda.

“Since we only had one meet­ing with her, it’s really too early to char­ac­ter­ize our in­ter­ac­tions with her re­lated to the [green­house-gas] rule­mak­ing pro­cess,” said Melissa McHenry, spokes­wo­man for Amer­ic­an Elec­tric Power.

“I would say it is a cor­di­al open re­la­tion­ship,” said a util­ity lob­by­ist who wished to re­main an­onym­ous. “Noth­ing neg­at­ive, but not enough in­ter­ac­tion to really char­ac­ter­ize it one way or an­oth­er.”

In­deed, Mc­Carthy has only been on the job as ad­min­is­trat­or for about three and a half months, and she has ap­prox­im­ately 37 months left to go un­til Obama leaves the White House.

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