Coal-Country Democrats Nervously Await EPA Regulations for Power-Plant Emissions

Sunflower Electric Cooperative's coal-fired power plant churns out electricity Thursday, Feb. 1, 2007 in Holcomb, Kan. Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius vetoed a bill allowing two additional coal-fired power plants at the location. (National Journal)

Coal-country Democrats aren't eager to talk about the Environmental Protection Agency's new emission regulations for power plants expected to be released later this week, which could put them in a tough position between the pressures of regional politics and party loyalty.

The new limits are expected to effectively require carbon capture — a still-developing technology — for all new coal-fired plants in order to meet emission standards. That has drawn backlash from many in the coal industry, but most Democrats from coal-heavy regions have largely been hesitant to speak out.

The regulations are a cornerstone of President Obama's action plan for addressing climate change, with coal-burning power plants known as one of the largest sources of greenhouse gases in the country. But the coal industry, producers of a relatively cheap and abundant energy source, would be hit hard by the EPA rules, as higher operating costs for power plants lead utilities to switch to lower-cost and lower-emitting natural gas.

Only one of the seven Democratic members of the Congressional Coal Caucus would comment on the regulations; several said they were withholding their reactions until the policy is official. Other coal-country candidates — including Rep. Allyson Schwartz, D-Pa., a candidate for governor in her state, and West Virginia Secretary of State Natalie Tennant, a Senate hopeful — also did not offer comment on the new standards. Tennant has said she disagrees with some of Obama's coal policies.

Coal industry leaders say they expect some politicians to break their silence soon. "It has not had the level of discussion it should be having in Congress," said Nancy Gravatt, senior vice president of communications for the National Mining Association. "I expect there will be more [Democrats opposing it]." Ohio Coal Association President Zane Daniels added, "I think it's important that we see bipartisan opposition to the proposed regulations."

Not every Democrat has been silent on the issue, however. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., voiced his opposition at a Tuesday Senate hearing. "We're getting the living crap beat out of us by this administration," he said. "They just beat the living daylights out of little West Virginia, but they sure like what we produce."

Another West Virginia Democrat, Rep. Nick Rahall, was equally vehement in his stance. "I am dead-set against the EPA and their scheme to issue emissions standards that would make it impossible for new coal-fired power plants to be constructed," he said in a statement.

Their positions were welcome news for Bill Raney, president of the West Virginia Coal Association. "This doesn't have a thing to do with partisan politics," he said. "It shouldn't make a difference to any of them, whether they're Democrat or Republican; it's simply wrong."

Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, who is challenging Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., issued her own pushback on the new standards. "Coal keeps the lights on in Kentucky — plain and simple — and I will not stand idle as overreaching regulation adversely impacts jobs and middle-class families," she said.

Sens. Joe Donnelly, D-Ind., and Robert Casey, D-Pa., would not offer comment on the regulations until they are made official, but Donnelly urged a focus on existing technology and Casey praised coal's role as a cheap energy source.

Such breaks with Obama's policy are often necessary for Democrats from coal-heavy areas, said one Pennsylvania Democratic operative who requested anonymity to protect a current candidate. "People have a general perception of the parties," he said. "[Democrats] almost have to be more vocal than the Republicans sometimes because you don't want to be painted with that broad brush. It also kind of symbolizes who you're for. It's not just an energy issue; it's a cultural issue. Being against coal can mean to voters that you're against the working class, you're an elitist."