Coal Has Its Day On Capitol Hill

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U.S. coal interests had a big day on Capitol Hill on Tuesday. But instead of making their case, they revealed that President Obama’s so-called “War on Coal” is not much of a war.

First up was a rally on Capitol Hill to protest the carbon emission rules the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently released for new power plants, and will release for existing plants in 2014. The rally included roughly 3,000 miners and workers from across the coal industry — who were advised not to speak to the media — as well as around 30 members of Congress, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and even some coal-country Democrats.

The rally was organized, however, by the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity (ACCCE), which has a long history of opposing climate change legislation. On top of that, the ACCCE has been willing to fake letters from civil rights organizations and military veterans to prop up its past efforts, along with astroturf campaigning.

Next up was the release of a draft bill by House Energy and Power Subcommittee Chairman Ed Whitfield (R-KY) and Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) to hamstring the EPA’s ability to cut greenhouse gas emissions from the nation’s power plants. Right now the EPA bases its rules for new plants — and will base its rules for existing plants — on a number of demonstration projects across the country which it believes will show carbon capture and sequestration technology (CCS) to be feasible at scale. But the simple fact is this technology is not yet commercially viable, and it’s not clear when or if it will be.

Manchin and Whitfield’s bill would limit the agency to carbon emissions standards that “have been achieved over a one-year period by at least six units located at different commercial power plants in the United States,” as well as standards “that have been achieved over a one-year period by at least three units” for more specialized forms of coal burning. Needless to say, this would vastly curtail the reach and depth of the cuts the EPA could call for in the nation’s carbon emissions. Unfortunately, as a report by the Center for American Progress pointed out, the full extent of what CCS could achieve will likely remain a mystery without the push that ambitious regulation would achieve.

Finally, there were two hearings held today by House GOP critics of the EPA’s efforts. The first hearing dug into the aforementioned issue of CCS’ feasibility. But the second hearing chose to explore effects of the EPA’s regulations on communities dependent on coal jobs in states like Kentucky and Pennsylvania. And despite the genuinely moving struggles of towns that have seen their jobs and economic prospects crumble — and the conviction of many of the protesters at the rally — the hearing failed to make the case that efforts to cut carbon emissions were to blame.

The EPA’s proposed rules for new power plants have net yet taken effect. And its rules for existing power plants — by definition the only rules that would affect coal-based jobs already in place — have not even been proposed yet. Also, the EPA is not unrealistic, and will no doubt provide plants with several years to phase into the new emissions standards.

More importantly, Congress members and witnesses at the hearing failed to disaggregate the different forces acting on the coal industry, and offered no reason to think anticipation of the new rules was having an effect comparable to the 2008 crash or the recent boom in cheap natural gas. On top of that, national employment in coal mining has actually been on the upswing recently, as has coal employment in West Virginia and western Kentucky. Coal employment in eastern Kentucky is down, but its drop largely lines up with the spike in natural gas production.