Coal-state senators are poised to assume several of the most prominent leadership positions in Congress, promising to roll back a series of environmental regulations and offering a modicum of support to an industry badly in need of a lifeline.
The ascension of coal-field lawmakers sets the stage for a pitched battle over the future of U.S. environmental policy. Industry advocates see an opportunity for lawmakers to repeal a series of Obama-era initiatives, calling for an end to a moratorium on new federal coal leases and proposed caps on carbon emissions from coal plants.
Environmentalists, for their part, are raising alarms about potential efforts to gut the Clean Air Act, limiting the ability of future presidents to slash greenhouse gas emissions.
"I think the American people sent a clear message: They want change in Washington," said Sen. John Barrasso, a Wyoming Republican in line to lead the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. "We heard that loud and clear from coal country and all around America."
Barrasso joins a Republican leadership team that includes Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and Budget Chairman Mike Enzi, a Wyoming senator who once served as mayor of the coal-field community of Gillette.
Analysts have questioned lawmakers’ ability to reverse coal’s decline (ClimateWire, Nov. 10). Low natural gas prices, they note, will continue to dictate coal’s future.
The trio nevertheless boast considerable power to shape the country’s energy and environmental priorities. Together, they will set the Senate agenda, decide the budget for regulatory agencies like U.S. EPA and the Department of the Interior and provide the final say over Cabinet appointments like U.S. EPA administrator.
All three have expressed doubts about human beings’ contributions to climate change and argued that Obama exceeded his authority in seeking to reduce U.S. carbon emissions.
McConnell, in a press conference last week, expressed hope that Donald Trump would roll back many of the executive actions taken during the Obama administration. He said he would recommend that the president-elect scrap the Clean Power Plan, EPA’s present carbon-cutting proposal, on day one of Trump’s administration.
Max D’Onofrio, an Enzi spokesman, echoed that sentiment, saying "Sen. Enzi is looking forward to working with the new administration to roll back the red tape. It is time the government ends its war on coal and other fossil fuels."
Industry’s influence ebbs and flows
The three lawmakers have largely remained coy over specifics. Barrasso, in an interview yesterday, declined to name his priorities as incoming EPW chairman, saying he wanted to wait for the current Congress to finish its work before commenting.
He did raise the prospect of using the Congressional Review Act to turn back a series of regulations implemented by the Obama administration in recent months.
"When you can’t get something done by using the legislative process, it’s much more likely to fall when you leave office, which is what I think we’re going to see with what President Obama has done," Barrasso said.
The Wyoming lawmaker, in a separate interview with E&E News, said he hopes to confirm an EPA administrator "who’ll be able to reverse a lot of the damage that’s been done to our economy."
Enzi, through his spokesman, did not respond to a question on funding for agencies like EPA.
A McConnell spokesman did not respond to a request for comment.
Coal country lawmakers’ rising stock stands in stark contrast with a dramatic decline in mining firms’ fortunes. U.S. coal production hit a 29-year low in 2015, according to U.S. Energy Information Administration data. Output has continued to decline this year, with production lagging 20 percent behind 2015 levels through the first 10 months of 2016.
The drop has been accompanied by a contraction in coal’s influence on Capitol Hill. The industry’s campaign contributions have fallen, declining from roughly $16 million in 2012 to around $11.5 million this year, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Coal companies nevertheless are among Barrasso, Enzi and McConnell’s largest backers. Peabody Energy Corp. has given $169,000 to McConnell over his career, the center’s figures show, making the country’s largest coal company the sixth-largest contributor to the Senate majority leader. Alpha Natural Resources Inc., Murray Energy Corp. and Peabody rank among Barrasso and Enzi’s top donors.
Gutting the Clean Air Act?
Environmentalists and coal backers are already positioning themselves in anticipation of legislation aimed at curbing the government’s regulatory authority.
Luke Popovich, a spokesman for the National Mining Association, called on lawmakers to lift the moratorium on new coal leases on federal land, strike down the stream protection rule, which is set to be finalized in the coming weeks, and dump the Clean Power Plan.
Increased funding for carbon capture and sequestration is also a priority for the mining industry, he said.
"If we’re going to solve the climate problem, how can we make some constructive changes?" Popovich said. "To us, that’s in coal technology, not in regulating it out of the market."
Environmentalists for their part expressed concern that Republicans could turn their focus to dismantling the Clean Air Act, amending the endangerment finding that has provided the legal framework for EPA to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
House Republicans this year passed two amendments aimed at limiting EPA’s ability to cut carbon under the Clean Air Act (E&E Daily, July 14). A separate House bill, the "Stopping EPA Overreach Act," called for repealing all climate regulations implemented under the Clean Air Act but has not been acted on (E&E Daily, June 14). And the conservative Competitive Enterprise Institute renewed its push this week for passage of the "Regulations from the Executive in Need of Scrutiny Act," which calls for Congress to complete a cost-benefit analysis before an executive action can be implemented (E&E Daily, Nov. 15).
"It underscores the important role the Senate minority, the Senate Democrats, will play in effectively being the only part of our federal government that speaks up for the interest of the majority that didn’t vote for this alignment," said David Doniger, director of the climate and clean air program at the Natural Resource Defense Council.
Democrats now boast a filibuster-proof margin in the Senate, where Republicans hold a 52-48 seat majority. Environmentalist and industry backers alike expressed doubts over the GOP’s ability to overcome Democratic opposition if Republicans seek amendments to the Clean Air Act.
"That’s a lot of heavy lifting," said Andy Roberts, an analyst at Wood Mackenzie, though he noted that such moves would have "a more substantial positive impact for coal in the longer term."
More likely, Roberts said, are a series of more modest reforms, like a repeal of the Clean Power Plan, which would help improve coal’s competitiveness relative to natural gas.
"I think the major thing that a Trump administration does is it sets a different tone and allows coal to enter a glide path to a future of less consumption, which is certainly coming, as opposed to a cliff that it was facing absent a Trump administration," Roberts said.