Politicians -- especially those in tough November contests -- are scrambling to gain the political upper hand following the Obama administration's latest rulemaking to address greenhouse gas emissions from existing power plants.
The issue appears to have put coal-state Democrats in tight races on the defensive, looking to push back against Republican claims that they are part of President Obama's regulatory agenda.
Flexibility built into U.S. EPA's proposal released yesterday, including different greenhouse gas targets for different states, and potential benefits to other fuels like natural gas have not assuaged critics.
Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes (D), who is running to unseat Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell, announced a six-figure campaign in coal country, starting with newspaper ads.
"As Kentucky's next U.S. Senator, I will work across the aisle with Republicans and Democrats to save coal jobs and fiercly oppose anyone who works against Kentucky's coal industry," the campaign says. "Stand with me."
Over the weekend, Grimes fended off criticism from state Republicans and McConnell's campaign that she had taken money from Natural Resources Defense Council chief Frances Beinecke, a strong supporter of the greenhouse gas limits.
McConnell spokeswoman Allison Moore said Grimes has the support of Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada and "is being funded by liberals nationwide who know that a vote for her is a vote to ensure further implementation of their anti-coal agenda in the U.S. Senate." Grimes is holding a fundraiser with Reid in Washington, D.C., this week.
McConnell and West Virginia Democratic Rep. Nick Rahall, who is also in a tough re-election fight, promised to introduce legislation to block EPA's proposal.
"When the time is ripe, I will also join in litigation to stop these rules from taking effect," said Rahall in one of numerous statements against the rule beginning last week in an effort to get ahead of expected GOP attacks.
Rahall's words didn't stop his Republican opponent, Evan Jenkins. "The chickens are now coming home to roost," said Jenkins, accusing Rahall of being unable to use his party connections and seniority to block the president's plans.
Rule 'custom made' for states
Meanwhile, EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy went to great lengths to promote the rulemaking's flexibility, with different greenhouse gas reduction targets for the various states.
Kentucky and West Virginia have 18.3 percent and 19.8 percent carbon intensity reduction targets, respectively, compared with 34 percent for Nevada, 44.2 percent for New York and almost 72 percent for Washington state, to name a few.
Kyle Aarons, a senior fellow at the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, said EPA calculated the targets based on each state's emissions but also their ability to make reductions.
"EPA is taking a look at how much excess natural gas capacity states have," Aarons said, noting that when it comes to West Virginia and Kentucky, "EPA is showing no excess natural gas capacity, that these states have so much coal and a handful of other things on the margins." In Aarons' view, EPA "custom made" the rule with states in mind.
Still, in a conference call yesterday, Rep. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) said, "West Virginia would be a big loser here because of the [electric production] mix we have."
Capito, who is running for Senate, ripped into her opponent, Secretary of State Natalie Tennant, for supporting Obama and running to keep Democrats in control of the Senate.
Capito said she would ask Tennant, "Who would you vote to control the Senate?" adding, "That's what we're going to be talking about."
In her own statement yesterday, Tennant said, "I will stand up to President Obama, Gina McCarthy, and anyone else who tries to undermine our coal jobs."
West Virginia Democrat Nick Casey and Republican Alex Mooney, both vying to replace Capito in the House next year, made similar accusations about each other.
Bill Bissett, the outspoken president of the Kentucky Coal Association, said the fuel remains on the losing end of the administration's plans regardless of the flexibility.
"Make no mistake," he said, "this is going to seriously harm the economies of coal mining and coal-using states like Kentucky and West Virginia."
'All pain, but no gain'?
Unlike Kentucky, West Virginia enjoys significant natural gas reserves connected to the Marcellus Shale. But potential gains for gas from EPA's rule have made little difference in the political equation for many lawmakers.
"We have gas and coal," said Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), criticizing the White House for picking one over the other. "Coal is one of two [baseload power sources] that we have."
In an interview, Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) withheld support for the rule even though he said in a statement that "rather than let fear alone drive our response, we should make this an opportunity to build a stronger future for ourselves."
Even though polls show Americans generally support government action to deal with climate change, Republicans in particular see opposition to EPA as a winning strategy. Many lawmakers' comments are, no doubt, shaped by the country's political climate.
Tomorrow, the National Republican Senatorial Committee is launching robocalls in the battleground states of Alaska, Colorado, Louisiana and Virginia. They all generally accuse Democratic incumbents of supporting higher energy prices and killing jobs.
Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), who is running for re-election, said he was reviewing EPA's proposal. Virginia must cut the intensity of its carbon emissions by 37.5 percent.
Freshman Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), while also undecided, spoke against the administration's critics. "Virginians are pro-science people," he said. "[Climate denying] is not taken seriously by Virginians."
In Montana, Sen. Jon Tester (D) said, "At first blush, I think it's OK. We've got to make sure it works." EPA proposed a 21.1 percent cut for Montana. Rep. Steve Daines (R), who is running for Senate, blasted the proposal and introduced legislation to expand the coal production tax credit for American Indians.
The CoalBlue Project, an alliance of pro-coal Democrats, said in a statement, "For too many American workers and their families, as well as too many American businesses, the EPA's proposal will thus be 'all pain, but no gain.'"
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), one of the Senate's climate hawks, faulted pro-coal opposition to the proposed rule when, he said, coal plants are a major part of the problem. "They have a habit and long trend of over-complaining," he said. "This imaginary 'war on coal' is a perfect example."
Beyond coal country, states where the outcome on Election Day could tip the balance in the Senate face a broad range of emissions reduction targets.
EPA's proposal gives a 16 percent carbon-cutting target between 2012 and 2030 to Iowa, where wind provides more than one-quarter of electric power and Republicans hope to defeat Rep. Bruce Braley (D). Meanwhile, vulnerable Sen. Mark Begich's (D) Alaska is asked to slash emissions by 26 percent.
In the Southeast and Northeast, where the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) is already putting states on an emissions-trimming pathway, EPA is seeking bigger percentage cuts in high-profile midterm election states. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen's (D) New Hampshire, for example, must trim 46 percent of its power-sector carbon by 2030.
Shaheen lauded the EPA plan yesterday as a means to usher in the same emissions-cutting mentality in the Midwest that RGGI has helped established in the Northeast (E&ENews PM, June 2).
The Granite State's GOP senator, Kelly Ayotte, also declined to criticize the climate targets yesterday, saying she is "still taking a look at them" and wants to "hear from other stakeholders."
Asked about New Hampshire's relatively high target, Conservation Law Foundation's vice president for climate advocacy, Seth Kaplan, said in an interview that the state is an outlier in New England when it comes to planning for the retirement of major coal-burning power plants.
"New England has accepted the reality of the need to purge the system of these old, inefficient high-carbon plants," said Kaplan, whose environmental group is involved in litigation aimed at forcing the closure of one of New Hampshire's larger coal plants.
But Shaheen's most politically relevant factor as she weathers possible GOP attacks over the EPA rule may be the historical record. Among the Massachusetts state lawmakers voting to join RGGI in 2008 was Scott Brown, the former Republican senator and Shaheen's likely re-election challenger.
In the Southeast, Georgia faces a 44 percent power-sector emissions reduction target under the EPA proposal. Democratic Senate nominee Michelle Nunn, who states on her campaign website that "we have a moral obligation to act now" on climate change, already is getting hit by GOP Rep. Jack Kingston of Georgia over the rule.
North Carolina, where the Energy Information Administration estimated that out-of-state coal generated nearly 40 percent of electricity last year, is in line for a 40 percent emissions reduction target under the EPA proposal. Sen. Kay Hagan (D-N.C.), like Nunn, is poised to face similar attacks from Republican nominee Thom Tillis.
Also looking at a 40 percent power-sector target by 2030 is Louisiana, where Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chairwoman Mary Landrieu (D) is working to burnish her already-strong fossil-fuel credentials to beat back Rep. Bill Cassidy (R). Landrieu made clear yesterday that she opposes the EPA rule but added that "without commenting on specific goals ... the flexibility and time frame is more preferable than one-size-fits-all."
Louisiana's natural gas production is robust, and its coal consumption for electricity is low, suggesting that EPA's favorable future for gas-fired power could help cushion the blow of the reduction targets. But Landrieu pointed out that "we produce a lot of gas, and we use a lot of gas -- these things work both ways in Louisiana."
Reporters Nick Juliano and Jean Chemnick contributed.