Politics & Government

Home state's coal interests drove McConnell's climate bill opposition

WASHINGTON — As Sen. Mitch McConnell led the fight against passage of a Democratic-backed global warming bill this week, he found himself in the complicated position of balancing the economic needs of his coal-dependent state with addressing increasing public demand for environmentally friendly energy policies.

The result was a congressional faceoff that pitted Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer of California and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada against a Senate minority leader who commands widely acknowledged skills at using procedural motions to block legislation he dislikes.

The Democrats were forced to pull the bill Friday morning after failing to secure enough votes to move forward. Earlier in the week, McConnell was one of 14 senators who voted not to let debate begin on the bill. He later brought proceedings to a standstill after calling for all 492 pages of the bill to be read aloud.

"The message is clear: The majority can't abandon this bill fast enough," McConnell said Friday. "On the one hand, the majority says climate change is the most important issue facing the planet. Yet they've rushed the debate on that topic and brought the bill to a premature end."

The climate change legislation would have encouraged companies to use natural gas instead of coal, capped greenhouse gas emissions over the next 40 years and required businesses to buy permits in exchange for going over those caps. The energy sector worried the measure would have resulted in a $2.8 trillion price increase for its industry by 2030, according to a study by Wood Mackenzie, an energy consulting firm.

The measure might have hit coal country squarely in the pocketbook, and McConnell hit right back.

He argued vigorously that the bill would send energy prices soaring. He pointed to a National Association of Manufacturers report that said under the legislation Kentucky residents would lose jobs and income because of "higher energy prices, the high cost of complying with required emissions cuts and greater competition from overseas manufacturers with lower energy costs."

During the debate, Sen. Jim Bunning and other senators from coal-producing states shared McConnell's views that regulation of greenhouse gases amounted to a huge tax. They cited a study that forecast the bill would raise gasoline prices 53 cents per gallon between now and 2030, or about 2 cents per year.

"If passed, it would have a devastating impact on the U.S. economy," McConnell said of the legislation Monday on the Senate floor. "It is, at its heart, a stealth and giant tax on virtually every aspect of industrial consumer life."

So far, McConnell has received $80,000 from the coal mining industry --more money than any other senator this campaign season, according to the Center for Responsive Politics' Open Secrets website, which tracks money in politics. More than 90 percent of Kentucky's electricity and half of the nation's electricity comes from coal. According to the Kentucky Coal Education project, through 2006 the coal mining industry pumped $3.5 billion into the state's economy.

Lexington has the country's largest "carbon footprint" -- leading the nation in emitting the greenhouse gases that most scientists believe contribute to global climate change. Other Kentucky cities follow closely including the Cincinnati-Northern Kentucky area and Louisville, according to a study of the nation's 100 largest metropolitan areas by the Brookings Institution.

McConnell and lawmakers from coal-producing states see advances in so-called "clean coal" technology as critical to the challenge of keeping their states' economies strong while limiting carbon emissions. They pin their hopes on efforts to convert coal to liquid fuels, a controversial technology that critics say is costly and environmentally risky.

"Greater use of coal-to-liquid fuel technology would take full advantage of this natural resource, which Kentucky has in abundance, while also benefiting our environment by reducing emissions of sulfur dioxide, nitrous oxide and other pollutants as compared to using conventional fuels," McConnell wrote in an April 30 column. "We have enough coal in America to supply our nation for more than 250 years. What Saudi Arabia is to oil, America is to coal."

(Renee Schoof of the McClatchy Washington Bureau contributed to this report.)

Related stories from McClatchy DC