December 1, 2009 / 6:52 AM / 10 years ago

Coal concerns lead U.S. climate bill challenges

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - For anyone trying to understand why the United States is having such a hard time joining an international effort to combat global warming, a short drive west from Washington to one of the smaller states in the country might explain a lot.

Even though it has a population of only 1.8 million people in a country of 308 million, West Virginia is not to be ignored as Congress struggles over ways to reduce carbon emissions blamed for international climate change problems.

Coal is buried in nearly every nook of its 24,231 square miles (62,758 square km) and any legislation to reduce the role of dirty energy sources such as coal could hit the state hard.

The politics surrounding coal may be among the thorniest in the U.S. effort to craft climate change legislation, and the hurdles show why President Barack Obama will need to keep one eye on Charleston, the West Virginia capital, even as he travels to Copenhagen for international climate negotiations this month.

West Virginia’s two U.S. senators, like several of their fellow Democrats from other major coal states, say they want to do something to ease carbon pollution — with conditions.

“We have leverage and bargaining position for a good reason because our people essentially are going to pay this price,” Senator John Rockefeller recently told reporters.

And so a less ambitious timetable for reducing U.S. carbon emissions than currently being debated and more government concentration on developing “clean coal” technologies are essential for the support of Rockefeller and other senators.

“I know my coal miners,” Rockefeller said, adding that workers in West Virginia view “cap-and-trade to be a really bad word.”

As a result, Rockefeller wants Congress to allow more time to educate voters about how the complicated regime would work allowing companies to trade pollution permits with each other.

Throughout the Midwest and South of the United States, coal and coal-fired power plants are central to local energy production and to jobs.

Paul Sracic, chairman of the political science department at Youngstown State University in Ohio, a coal state that also has suffered significant manufacturing job losses in recent decades, said, “While legislation aimed at combating global — emphasize global — warming might garner support in theory, it quickly loses its popularity if it is thought to cost local — emphasize local — jobs.”


Obama will arrive in Copenhagen on December 9 at the beginning of a two-week international global warming negotiating summit lacking Congress’ backing for specific climate change actions the United States could pledge.

The White House last week said, however, that the U.S. would aim to cut its carbon emissions “in the range of 17 percent” by 2020, a goal set in legislation passed by the House of Representatives last June. Similar legislation is bogged down in the Senate.

In recent months, it became apparent that the 190 or so countries attending the Copenhagen summit would not be able to reach a final deal on new global carbon emission goals.

But the White House on Monday said Obama hopes he can help bring participants to the brink of a deal.

His attendance “certainly raises the stakes of the summit,” said Frank O’Donnell, president of the U.S.-based Clean Air Watch. “It looked as if it would be pretty flat but Obama’s presence puts it front and center, page one, around the world.”

A strong performance also could jump-start legislation in the Senate, he added.

Even so, Obama will have to hit just the right chord in Copenhagen, offering enough to encourage other countries to negotiate a strong deal without promising a too-ambitious domestic plan that the U.S. Congress would refuse to ratify.

Obama’s carbon-reduction goal would amount to a mere 3 percent cut from its 1990 emissions. The European Union, by contrast, promises to cut emissions by 20 percent below 1990 levels by 2020.

Why does the EU have the political will that could be lacking in the United States?

Coal, which is not as ubiquitous in western Europe as it is in much of the United States could be one reason. But there are others.

The U.S. Senate operates in ways that make it difficult for any major initiatives to move quickly. Instead of simple majority rule, at least 60 votes out of 100 are needed for important legislation to pass. And every senator’s vote, whether he or she is from the gigantic state of California or the tiny state of Rhode Island, is equally weighted.

Other factors also may have contributed to the United States dragging its feet on climate change: The issue has gotten serious attention from the White House only in the past year with Obama’s election; Washington has been fixated on reforming the U.S. healthcare system all year, putting climate change on a slower track; lately there have not been monster storms, like the 2005 Hurricane Katrina, that environmentalists could point to for faster action on climate change.

And with a U.S. economy badly in the doldrums, American lawmakers are not itching to cast votes on a bill that will raise energy prices, even if only marginally.

Meanwhile, the U.S. nuclear power industry is working hard to be included in any climate bill, as are domestic oil firms that want to expand offshore production even though that would do nothing to cut carbon emissions.

The Obama administration and Democratic leaders in Congress will try to cast the climate debate in economic terms, arguing that a move toward renewable energy will create jobs. It’s an argument many refuse to buy so far.

Carol Browner, Obama’s climate adviser, acknowledged the fight ahead. “It will not be easy,” Browner said in a November 20 speech to an environmental group, adding, “There are a lot of people to educate in the towns and cities in this country.”

Editing by Cynthia Osterman

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