A House Republican and Senate Democrat yesterday released a draft bill they said charts a middle course between slashing U.S. EPA's greenhouse gas regulatory authority for power plants and giving the agency free rein at the expense of coal country.
Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) joined Rep. Ed Whitfield (R-Ky.) in introducing a discussion draft that would significantly limit the scope of two power-sector carbon emission rules that formed the cornerstone of President Obama's Climate Action Plan. GOP lawmakers are expected to tout the draft today at two hearings and an industry-sponsored rally on Capitol Hill.
The Whitfield-Manchin draft seeks to address many of the concerns the coal industry says it has with EPA's proposal for future power plants and to limit the scope of its upcoming rule for existing power plants. But the duo argued that it should be viewed as a moderate proposal that can gain the support of Democrats and Republicans alike.
"We've got people on both sides of the issue -- far right and far left -- that aren't going to like it, would rather have something different," said Manchin yesterday, participating remotely in a briefing with reporters. "We found that this strikes what we feel is a consensus, middle, doable procedure that we can abide by."
Whitfield, who heads a key Energy and Commerce Committee subpanel, said "there are lots of people who say we're not going to be satisfied until you pass legislation that EPA cannot regulate greenhouse gases" but that the agency already is "regulating greenhouse gases now."
"Because they're moving so quickly, I think Congress definitely has the responsibility to set the parameters as they move into this new era, particularly because of the impact that it will have on energy production in the U.S.," Whitfield said.
But Energy and Commerce Committee ranking member Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) sharply criticized the measure.
"The bill is scientific lunacy," Waxman said in a statement. "It will endanger the future of our children and grandchildren. Four weeks ago, Republicans in Congress recklessly shut down government. Now they are recklessly trying to shut down efforts to protect the planet."
The draft would not bar EPA from regulating power plant carbon emissions, but it would throw out the agency's proposal for future power plants and prevent the agency from promulgating the kind of aggressive rule for existing units that environmentalists have said will be necessary to meet the president's carbon-reduction commitments.
The agency proposal for future power plants released last month would require coal-fired units to limit their emissions to 1,050 or 1,100 pounds of CO2 per kilowatt-hour, arguing that projects currently in the works prove that carbon capture and storage technology is available to allow industry to meet those standards.
But Whitfield noted that none of the projects cited in the proposal is currently in operation, all will rely on government assistance to be built, and most are sited in or near oil fields that can take advantage of the captured CO2 for enhanced oil recovery. Furthermore, the proposal makes no distinction between lignite coal and bituminous coal, even though they would require different CCS technologies.
His proposal with Manchin would prohibit EPA from promulgating a rule for future power plants requiring CCS until at least six commercial-scale plants have been operating for at least a year in diverse locations and without federal funding. It further would require that three lignite plants be operating with CCS or that technology would be excluded from the standard.
EPA is "just grabbing at things" by claiming that CCS is available to future power plants now, Whitfield said. But when asked whether industry would invest in the costly emissions-reduction technology without a regulatory incentive or financial assistance, the congressman said "no."
"They won't invest in it," he said, adding that CCS is "totally economically infeasible" as a means of limiting CO2 emissions.
The duo also propose having Congress set effective dates for existing power plant rules by passing legislation in both chambers -- something that would likely prove difficult in a divided Congress. The draft would invalidate all rules proposed prior to its enactment.
Whitfield said his Energy and Power Subcommittee will hold a hearing on the legislation on Nov. 14. It will also feature EPA acting air chief Janet McCabe testifying on the proposal for new power plants.
Whitfield expressed high hopes for the bill. "We want to get it over with before this session of Congress is out," he said.
The measure is likely to face little difficulty passing the House, but the Senate is another matter.
Manchin said he had discussed the idea in general terms with Senate Democratic colleagues but had not yet shown them the legislation.
He named Sens. Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota and Joe Donnelly of Indiana as top recruitment prospects, but said he had also spoken to several other Democrats who in the past have opposed Republican-backed efforts to roll back EPA's regulatory authority, including Sens. Bob Casey of Pennsylvania, Sherrod Brown of Ohio and Jon Tester of Montana.
"We'll be bringing it up in our Energy Committee, also," said Manchin, referring to the Senate Energy and Natural Resources panel, of which he is a member. Asked whether he had a commitment from Chairman Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) that he would take up the bill, Manchin spoke instead of ranking member Lisa Murkowski's (R-Alaska) support for it.
The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, chaired by Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), rather than the ENR Committee, would likely have primary jurisdiction over the measure in the Senate.
Manchin said his sponsorship of the bill would be unlikely to put other Democrats from energy-producing states on the spot for their votes, because many of them have supported similar policies in the past.
'There IS a war on coal'
Manchin and Whitfield released their proposal to coincide with a pro-coal rally at the Capitol this morning and hearings by panels of the House Science Committee and House Energy and Commerce Committee.
All of these events are designed to drive home the message to the Obama administration and most congressional Democrats that coal-fired power must have a future in the United States.
"You cannot simply jettison coal from our generation mix without damaging a significant part of western Pennsylvania's economy and still expect to have an affordable and reliable source of electricity to help foster a growing economy," Pennsylvania Coal Alliance CEO John Pippy wrote in prepared testimony for the Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations.
Witnesses from coal-mining communities have submitted testimony in which they not only tout the benefits of coal but also highlight the problems caused by the recent spate of coal mine closures and layoffs.
"Let me say bluntly, there IS a war on coal. I have seen it and lived it every day for the past five years," said Roger Horton, president of the group Citizens for Coal, in prepared testimony. "These people are unemployed today for one primary reason -- the anti-coal policies of the Obama Administration."
The coal industry counts on support from lawmakers of both parties, many of whom will speak at the rally this morning. Horton, however, is among the advocates who see even pro-coal Democrats with suspicion.
"Sitting in the Senate is a basket of bills -- already passed by the House of Representatives -- that would effectively end the Obama War on Coal," Horton will tell lawmakers this afternoon. "However the bills are being stonewalled by the Obama Administration and its lapdog Senate [Majority Leader] Harry Reid."
Pippy was more measured in his comments, noting that the advent of cheap natural gas has contributed to coal's woes. "To be sure," he says, "there are challenges facing our industry today that at times appear daunting."
However, even with rising natural gas prices, and even if the Obama administration were to scrap future rules, analysts say coal may never return to its previous glory, when it produced about half of the country's electricity.
That's especially the case in Appalachia, which is facing competition from other coal basins with coal that, under current market conditions, is more economical to mine and sell.
Perhaps as a nod to that reality, Kentucky Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear and Republican Rep. Hal Rogers yesterday announced a December summit to discuss economic development concerns in the eastern part of the state, which has seen a drastic drop in coal production and employment.
"Eastern Kentucky is a brilliant, storied region that enriches the fabric of our Commonwealth," said Beshear. "Yet for several decades, the region has seen a decline in growth and development, hampered by a lack of infrastructure and other resources that communities need to grow and thrive."
Many advocates, from economic development analysts to anti-coal environmentalists, have called on Appalachian politicians to focus more on diversification.
Backing the so-called Shaping Our Appalachian Region conference in Pikeville are the Rural Policy Research Institute, the Appalachian Regional Commission and Agriculture Department rural development officials.
"We are in uncharted waters in southern and eastern Kentucky, where the future of coal faces new regulatory challenges and economic uncertainty is daunting for our small communities," Rogers said. "But time and again, the people of our region have proven to be resilient."