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
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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.

Clare Foran and Alex Brown contributed to this article.
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