Coal-State Democrats Quietly Push Agenda in Senate

Coal-State Democrats Quietly Push Agenda in Senate
AP Photo/Susan Walsh, File

Fossil fuels hold a prominent position on a handful of Democratic senators’ agendas despite the Obama-era trend in government support for renewable energy and a push by liberal lawmakers to get rid of the controversial fuel source altogether.  

Though they now have a coal-friendly ally as president, a lack of legislative opportunities in the upper chamber finds these senators using limited options to quietly work in concert with President Trump’s deregulation goals.

Kevin Book, ClearView Energy Partners’ managing director of research, notes that energy law is “very hard to make” because the policy itself is “mostly regulatory, it’s mostly done by agencies fragmented across the federal government, and it’s extremely regional.” 

President Obama used his regulatory power to push his energy agenda and Trump has used the power of the presidential pen to undo many of those regulations. It’s been the most effective option thus far given that the makeup of the Senate – Democrats hold 46 seats to the GOP’s 52 -- adds to the complications of passing legislation.

“The question is what, if anything, is going to happen in the future,” said former Harry Reid spokesman Jim Manley, noting the difficulty in reaching 60 affirmative votes with the current Democratic minority. “There hasn’t been a lot of legislating in the Senate, after all.”

Trump has nominated a series of fossil-fuel proponents to energy-related positions, starting in February with EPA Secretary Scott Pruitt. After that came Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and Energy Secretary Rick Perry, who were both confirmed in early March.

Pruitt, the former attorney general of Oklahoma who has repeatedly challenged the EPA in court, was confirmed by a Senate vote of 52-46. Of those 52 “yeas,” only two came from Democrats: Heidi Heitkamp and Joe Manchin, who are both up for re-election in 2018. Democrat Joe Donnelly, who also will seek another term in 2018, did not vote.

Those three senators, plus Claire McCaskill and Jon Tester, who likewise are up for re-election next year, cast the only Democratic confirmation votes for Zinke and Perry.

Zinke, a climate change skeptic who has repeatedly voted in favor of fossil fuel extraction, was confirmed by a vote of 68-31 while Perry, who in a 2011 presidential debate was famously unable to recall the Department of Energy as one of three federal agencies he had promised to eliminate, was confirmed, 62-37. Also of note, Daniel Simmons, a former member of the Trump transition team who has been outspoken in questioning the value of renewable energy, was appointed earlier this month to head the Energy Department’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy.

“He’s putting people in place that he’d be confident will push what he’s been promising,” Guy Caruso, a Center for Strategic and International Studies official, said of Trump’s Cabinet picks.

Book agreed, adding that the choices were also a “reaction” to the green leanings of the Obama administration.

“I wouldn’t call it so much a fossil-fuel bias so much as a deregulatory bias,” he said, noting Obama’s “broad and deep use of executive authority” that angered Republicans during his presidency.

As expected, these Cabinet picks quickly began reversing many environmental protections, including Zinke lifting a federal ban on coal leasing on federal land and suspending review of federal coal-leasing rates. In addition, Pruitt last week approved a proposal to grant North Dakota the power to regulate Class VI wells, which store waste carbon dioxide emitted from industrial sources including coal-powered plants.

Also, the Senate voted 54-45 in February to overturn a mandate requiring coal firms to clean waste from mountaintop removal operations. In a largely party line vote, the four Democrats who voted in the affirmative were, again, Manchin, Heitkamp, Donnelly, and McCaskill. Those four, plus Tester, also voted in 2015 to force approval of the Keystone XL pipeline. (Obama later vetoed the legislation.)

The offices of Tester, McCaskill, Manchin, Donnelly, and Heitkamp did not respond to requests for comment.

Additionally, many of these senators have been active in the fight for miners’ pensions – the subprime mortgage crisis and repeated coal-related bankruptcies have nearly killed the 1974 Pension Plan – culminating in the Miners Pension Protection Act, sponsored by Manchin.

 “[These senators’] main strategy is to be flexible and say the right things,” said Caruso, “even though they know that they’re not going to make any significant strides in putting coal miners back to work.” Caruso also suggested that, especially as coal struggles to compete with cheap natural gas, these lawmakers’ efforts might be better used retraining miners to work in different economic sectors.

“It will be difficult to put coal back on any kind of growth path,” he said, even if Trump is successful in removing some of the regulatory barriers now in place. “Trump’s goals probably won’t be realized, but it will slow down the growth in renewables and maybe slow down the loss of market share by coal.”

One of Trump’s biggest campaign promises was to bring back coal jobs, which helped him win swing states like Ohio and Pennsylvania. And the president has good reason to be responsive to coal-centric regions. Of the 10 states that used the most coal power in 2015, according to National Geographic, the top nine voted for Trump by an average margin of 27 percentage points. West Virginia was first, Indiana fourth, Missouri fifth, and North Dakota seventh. Moreover, as Book pointed out, Democratic senators like Bob Casey and Sherrod Brown come from states (Pennsylvania and Ohio, respectively) that value coal not so much as an export but rather as an import.

Coal, as many voters in these states would argue, is a way of life as much as it is a commodity: a basis for much-needed infrastructure, an employer of unskilled labor, a source of regional tradition and pride, and a means for self-sufficiency. As such, coal mining, which has been shown to support far fewer jobs than other methods of energy production, has proven slow to erode in many places across the country.

Nonetheless, both Book and Caruso reiterated coal’s current political disadvantage, even with a friend in the White House. Whether compared to shale liquids, which are found mostly on private lands that Trump would have difficulty influencing, or renewable energy sources, whose main federal funding is anchored in existing tax law, coal production proves difficult to drastically change via legislation.

“All the tax credits that people want for energy,” said Book, “are likely to be held hostage by the tax writing committees so they can generate buy-in to the broader reform measures.”

In fact, Caruso said, coal production is in need of a technological breakthrough, given the current expense involved in gathering carbon waste during fuel processing. That breakthrough, however, would likely rely on government-funded research and development. Whether due to the 10-to-20-year time frame involved or a general lack of caring – “it takes a crisis to get a big boost in R&D spending,” Caruso noted – that prospect seems improbable.

This week, Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski and Democratic Sen. Maria Cantwell have rekindled discussion of their stalled 2016 Energy Policy Modernization Act, which aims to both promote renewable energy and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Having been diluted nearly beyond recognition in the Senate last session, the bill lost momentum in the House, where the primary energy goal of the majority party, some say, is cutting regulations on fossil fuels.

Both sponsors, however, remain hopeful that this Congress will be more receptive to the measures outlined. Until then, though, Trump will likely continue to point to coal’s positive performance under his administration, supported by findings from the U.S. Energy Information Administration, following a gradual decline over the past eight years.

“Many of these Senate Democrats will be receptive to outreach from the administration,” said Manley of fossil fuel-based legislation, “if the administration plays their cards right.”

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