West Virginia Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D) lashed out at President Obama today for sending inconsistent messages about the future of coal.
Speaking at a Senate Finance Committee hearing on Obama's fiscal 2011 budget request, Rockefeller took umbrage first with the administration's decision to eliminate four tax breaks for the industry.
"It's going to be partly psychological," Rockefeller told White House budget chief Peter Orszag. "People are going to reduce their production because they feel, 'Uh oh, here comes the Obama administration,' and they are going to cut out coal."
But Rockefeller said his concerns snowballed when he considered recent U.S. EPA decisions on mountaintop-removal coal mining and work on regulations to control greenhouse gas emissions across the economy. Given that, he said, he isn't sure he trusts the president's commitments to coal, even as Obama promotes the fossil fuel through a series of other administration actions.
"He says it in his speeches, but he doesn't say it in here," Rockefeller said, referring to the budget proposal. "He doesn't say it in the actions of [EPA Administrator] Lisa Jackson. And he doesn't say it in the minds of my own people. And he's beginning to not be believable to me. So I want you to put me at rest or put me away."
Orszag, the director of the Office of Management and Budget, cited the new Cabinet-level task force Obama formed yesterday that aims to start five to 10 carbon capture and storage commercial demonstration projects around the country by 2016. He also cited the budget request of more than $500 million for research and development for carbon storage.
And the OMB chief explained that the president wants Congress to pass a comprehensive climate bill capping greenhouse gas emissions, a program that would generate billions more for carbon storage.
Rockefeller pushed back at the Obama budget request, saying it fell well short of what was necessary to prompt widespread deployment of the "clean coal" technologies. And he said the new task force had some of the same goals as already existing federal programs.
In an interview as he left the hearing, Rockefeller said his complaints didn't rest with the budget.
"It's not a question of money, it's a question of the overall approach," he said. "I just wonder whether they really do understand the importance of coal, the fact the nation can't exist without it."
Rockefeller maintained that he, too, supports a comprehensive climate change bill, though he was doubtful the Senate could reach agreement on a bill capable of winning 60 votes by the Democratic leaders' timetable of this spring.
"I've got to be satisfied," he said. "There's some coal-state senators like myself that have to be satisfied, forget all the Republicans who vote 'no' on everything."
Obama's commitment to fossil fuels also came under fire from Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), the head of the party's 2010 campaign operations.
Cornyn repeatedly questioned whether the administration's climate change policies entailed raising domestic energy prices in order to make other energy alternatives more commercially competitive. "I don't think that's the intention," Orszag replied. "The goal is to move toward alternative sources of energy as rapidly as possible."
The Texas Republican countered that Obama's energy policies would increase oil and gas prices, driving up imports at a time when more than three-quarters of the nation's energy needs are projected to come from fossil fuels in 2035.
But Orszag rejected the premise of the question. "What we're trying to move toward is a future where that projection is not realized," he said.