As one of the nation's largest producers of coal, West Virginia has more to lose than many other states when it comes to the debate over comprehensive global warming and energy legislation.
And that is why across the state, the loudest voices now being heard are against taking the kinds of aggressive actions envisioned by President Obama and Democratic congressional leaders.
Yet, Sen. Jay Rockefeller is happy to be at the bargaining table, trying to negotiate the best outcome possible for an industry that has been his home state's lifeblood for more than 150 years.
"I cannot strategically negotiate and fight for West Virginia's future if I just say no outright," he said last week.
In Rockefeller's eyes, coal is in trouble thanks to the increasing uncertainty surrounding a future full of climate-tinged regulation, the result of mounting scientific evidence surrounding global warming and the 2007 Supreme Court ruling that paves the way for new federal rules to clamp down on carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions.
"I think doing nothing at all on legislation causes three horrible things to happen, all of which mean the end of the coal industry. And people don't think of that because they hear 'cap and trade' and they say they don't like it," he said.
"How many don't understand it is another question," Rockefeller added. "But if you don't do it at all, you just do nothing, and just say no, natural gas probably is firing all present coal power plants within three or four years. Secondly, Wall Street, there being no legislation, therefore no predictability, lends no money to people trying to build power plants. And it just cedes completely to the EPA newly empowered by the Supreme Court under very strict terms to just tear at carbon related things. All of that is talking about the end of coal and that is not where I want to be at all for West Virginia."
Democratic leaders are relying on voices like Rockefeller's as they try to advance a cap-and-trade bill this fall that can win over 60 votes with compromises across both regional and party lines. The 72 year old holds the chairmanship of the Commerce Committee and the No. 2 spot on the Finance Committee. Going forward, many think he can bring some of the same coal-state bona fides that Rep. Rick Boucher (D-Va.) added this summer as the House wrote its climate bill.
"He has a lot of credentials within the moderate wing of the Senate Democrats," said Timothy Profeta, a former aide to Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) who is now head of Duke University's Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions. "He can be influential among his peers."
In 2003 and 2005, Rockefeller supported a cap-and-trade bill authored by Lieberman and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). Then, last summer, he supported Democratic leaders as another climate bill sputtered on the floor.
But the nephew of former Vice President Nelson Rockefeller is not a sure thing.
After last summer's Senate floor debate, Rockefeller quickly joined up with nine other moderate Democrats to detail a range of outstanding concerns that had not been addressed. And following Obama's first speech to a joint session of Congress, Rockefeller gave an emphatic "no" when asked whether he thought the president's comments about cap-and-trade legislation would build momentum this year.
"Cap and trade won't work," he said.
Regardless of his thoughts on cap and trade, Rockefeller will play a role in writing the bill. The Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee has jurisdiction over the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which has a leading federal role in the development of climate models and forecasts to help U.S. communities and businesses adapt to climate change. Rockefeller plans a markup of the Commerce Committee language this month.
At a hearing in late July, Rockefeller said the key to moving climate legislation is bringing a clear message to the public about the serious threat posed by global warming. "Unless the information reaches people who are confronting climate change on the front lines, it's for naught," Rockefeller said at the time. "It is time to take science out of the labs and into our communities."
The senator had little patience for anyone skeptical that climate change is happening and human activities are the main driver. "Climate change is happening," Rockefeller said. "Scientists agree. The people that say it's not happening -- well, have a nice day" (Climatewire, July 31).
Republicans in West Virginia have taken aim at Rockefeller even though he just won a fifth term in 2008 and won't face another re-election campaign until 2014.
A loose-knit group calling itself West Virginians Against Cap and Trade has been staging rallies since the spring, displaying signs that declare the climate bill "cap and tax."
National and local celebrities, including FOX News commentator Sean Hannity and musicians Ted Nugent and Hank Williams Jr., headlined a free Labor Day concert earlier this month in Holden, W.Va., a holiday event with the added message to the state's politicians to kill the Senate climate bill. Former West Virginia University football coach Don Nehlen is also working with cap-and-trade opponents.
GOP activists say Rockefeller has no business trying to negotiate with his fellow Democrats.
"I think he's sitting on the fence, but I'm not quite sure he's really on the fence," said Mike Stuart, a Charleston attorney and the director of the 3,500-member West Virginia Conservation Foundation.
"I think he wants to give the appearance he's working for West Virginia when the fact of the matter is there's no middle ground on this bill," added Troy Berman, director of the West Virginia Republican Party. "He can dress it up, but it'd still be what it is, which is an energy tax hike."
Berman said Rockefeller may be following the playbook of Reps. Alan Mollohan and Nick Rahall, the state's two House Democratic congressional members who voted against the climate bill after weeks of wavering in their position.
"They waited and waited and waited until they saw their votes weren't needed," Berman said. "That's not serving your constituents in West Virginia. That's serving your constituents in the speaker's office. And West Virginians deserve better."
State conservatives say they are largely focused on Rockefeller -- and not Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) -- because the latter has been more outspoken against the prospects for cap-and-trade legislation.
"I can say at this point Byrd's comments in the media appear very clearly to indicate that he's in no way a supporter for cap-and-trade legislation," Stuart said. "We haven't seen the same commitment from Senator Rockefeller."
Byrd spokesman Jesse Jacobs said the senator "opposes the House bill" and is working to "modify any" Senate bill. "This is part and parcel of what he's trying to do as it relates to the coal industry in West Virginia and jobs in West Virginia," Jacobs said.
Luke Popovich, a spokesman at the National Mining Association, said Rockefeller needs to be mindful of exactly what he signs off on.
"He certainly has a point that the marketplace doesn't like certainty," Popovich said. "That's what it's dealing with now. And we take his point that EPA is empowered to regulate in the absence of congressional legislation. But those two conditions do not in themselves argue for accepting an extremely costly measure that we believe will simply harm the coal industry and the coal communities in a different way."
The coal industry provides West Virginia with about 40,000 direct jobs in mining, mine contractors, mine supplies and coal preparation plants, according to the state's Office of Miners' Health, Safety and Training. West Virginia also touts about 4 percent of all U.S. coal reserves and 15 percent of the country's coal production.
So it is no surprise that energy issues are front and center in the state's political debate alongside the other top topic of the moment in Washington.
"It's without question as high on West Virginians' radars as health care," said Berman, who recently ran political campaigns in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Maryland, New York and Texas. "You can say that in one or two other states. But you can't say that about the country as a whole."
For opponents in the climate debate, much of their turf has already been staked out. Now they hope to turn the rest of West Virginia against the bill too.
According to Mark Blankenship Enterprises, a nonpartisan polling firm based in Charleston, there is still plenty of room to influence opinion on the issue in West Virginia.
Earlier this month, the company released the results of its first-ever survey of West Virginians' attitudes on cap-and-trade legislation specifically. Of 400 people questioned late last month, 23 percent said they either did not know about the debate or declined to share their opinion.
At the same time, Blankenship's survey found intense opposition against the House-passed bill -- 36 percent "strongly" against -- compared with 3 percent who said they "strongly favor" the legislation. And Blankenship's poll also found 21 percent "somewhat favor" the legislation and 17 percent who "somewhat oppose" the bill.
"It's those kind of people in the middle that will influence the debate one way or another," said Mark Blankenship, the company's president.
Blankenship's poll also asked the state's residents for their general feelings about whether global warming was a serious problem. Here, the results show that 66 percent think it is either "very serious" or a "somewhat serious" problem.
Also, Blankenship asked about a potential climate policy's projected costs, a pivotal question for a state that registered an 8.6 percent unemployment rate in July. Almost two-thirds of the people who responded said they were not willing to pay between $50 to $100 more a month in electricity bills to prevent global warming. Twenty-five percent said they were "somewhat willing" to pay the additional amount if it meant tackling climate change.
'I do not support any bill right now'
Rockefeller has been on the defensive in recent weeks as Republicans question his stance on cap and trade while local media reports speculate on how he will vote. The senator insisted last week that his position is what it is because of where Congress stands in the legislative process.
"I want to be very clear -- I do not support any bill right now," he said. " In fact, I have not yet seen a bill I would vote for."
Rockefeller said he would not have voted for the House bill, even though it did include several significant concessions to coal, enough for Boucher to support legislation and also to elicit positive comments from the United Mine Workers of America.
"The amount of money dedicated to coal in this bill is remarkable, and the future of coal will be intact," UMW official Phil Smith told the Charleston Gazette earlier this summer.
But it is still unclear exactly what Rockefeller's bottom line is. "If the final Senate bill does not protect West Virginia and the future of coal, I will not be voting for the bill," he said.
Pressed for some examples, senior Rockefeller aides cited the 2020 target to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 17 percent from 2005 levels, especially as it relates to carbon capture and storage (CCS) technologies and development and deployment. Rockefeller also wants to see more incentives given to trade-sensitive industries.
At the July hearing, Rockefeller also said he plans to include language that would create a National Climate Service in the Senate bill, but said he did not yet know how it would be structured.
For now, they say they are busy trying to sort through provisions tacked on at the last minute to the 1,400-plus page House bill. "We have potentially some time to go through these," an aide said. "A lot of industries who were supporting moving the process forward, but with the intention of reading the provisions, are now analyzing them and working with the Senate to work them out."
Sources on and off Capitol Hill say Rockefeller is working on some type of CCS package that he will soon be pushing for inclusion in the Senate bill.
Although Rockefeller had no details of his CCS proposal, he said Congress should double the $10 billion, 10-year program to promote the technology's widespread deployment that is now part of the House-passed bill. "I think it should be double that," he said. "I don't think that's going to be a problem."
February's economic stimulus package also included $3.4 billion for fossil fuel research and development, he noted.
On CCS, Rockefeller contributed ideas to the draft bill that emerged Friday from Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), Byrd and several other key coal-state Democrats, including Sens. Mark Warner of Virginia, Max Baucus of Montana and Arlen Specter and Robert Casey of Pennsylvania (E&E Daily, Sept. 11).
Rockefeller did not sign onto those specific legislative recommendations, as well as two accompanying letters that went to the Environment and Public Works and Finance committees.
Click here for the poll about cap-and-trade legislation and global warming in West Virginia.