WV reps ready to face familiar energy questions - Beckley, Bluefield & Lewisburg News, Weather, Sports

WV reps ready to face familiar energy questions

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With the election over, West Virginia's delegation in Washington has remained unchanged, and its members will be going back to Capitol Hill to fight the same battles on the energy front as before.

The first hurdle will be overcoming the "fiscal cliff," a Washington-imposed deadline where massive spending cuts and tax hikes are automatically enacted. Reaching a compromise before hitting the Dec. 31 midnight deadline is Washington's focus at the moment, but a number of other issues are sure to follow.

Climate change and energy issues have wide-ranging implications, particularly for energy-producing states such as West Virginia. Just last week, President Barack Obama reaffirmed his second term would attempt to address climate change created by carbon dioxide emitted by fossil fuel fired power plants.

"I am a firm believer that climate change is real and that it is impacted by human behavior and carbon emissions," Obama said. "As a consequence, I think we have an obligation to future generations to do something about it."

Whatever is done about carbon dioxide emissions will have a major impact on West Virginia. What does West Virginia's congressional delegation plan to bring to the table?

The State Journal e-mailed several energy-related questions to each of West Virginia's representatives in Washington. Each responded in part or full with the exception of Rep. David McKinley, R-W.Va.

Climate change

A lot of officials at multiple levels of West Virginia government have been quick to deny climate change or to assert evidence that humans are not the primary cause of global warming.

Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., said he believes "there is clear and compelling scientific evidence that man-made climate change is occurring." He said the nation has a responsibility to step up and meet the challenges that entails.

"That's why the United States needs to lead the way in reducing greenhouse gas emissions and showing the world that our country is still willing and able to meet big challenges. The consequences of failing to act are severe. Not only does man-made climate change hinder the entire global economy, including in the U.S., but we can expect elevated ocean levels, bizarre weather patterns, higher average temperatures, frequent damaging floods, and droughts, with life or death consequences and at an enormous cost."

Given the consequences, Rockefeller said, he urged acceptance of the science behind climate change.

"The science of climate change is real, and we need to accept that as a state and country," he said.

Sen. Joe Manchin also acknowledged the science of man-made climate change.

"With 7 billion people on the planet, there's no question that humans have an impact on our climate," Manchin said. "The real question is how we deal with it."

Manchin said that U.S. and world will be relying on coal for a long time. Because of that, he said, the country should chase the opportunity to make coal generation cleaner here and around the world.

Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., warned against using climate change science to institute regulatory policies.

"Using climate change or extreme weather events as an excuse for harsher domestic emissions restrictions will mean lost jobs in our state and severe disruptions to our economy, while providing little benefit for the environment," Rahall said.

Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., did not answer the question regarding West Virginia's role as a power producer and climate change policy. She did, however, say a tax on carbon dioxide emissions or other systems to limit emissions would harm West Virginia.

"There is no question that either a cap and trade bill or a carbon tax would be detrimental to West Virginia and our role as an energy producing state," Capito said. "A carbon tax would harm not only coal, but also to a lesser extent natural gas.  Again, the role of such a tax would be to choose winners and losers in the energy economy. Not only would this cost many West Virginians their jobs, it would also increase energy and gas bills for every energy consumer."

There has been talk about a carbon tax, but Obama and others have indicated little political will to introduce such legislation anytime soon.

Rahall said he opposed the original cap-and-trade legislation because of overly restrictive emissions and said he remains "ardently opposed" to any attempt to reduce emissions without economically feasible means for compliance by coal-fired power plants.

Manchin, who fired a bullet through cap-and-trade legislation in a campaign ad, said cap-and-trade is not the answer.

"Not if I have anything to do with it," he said. "Cap-and-trade will not solve the climate challenges we have."

Rockefeller did not endorse a carbon tax, cap-or-trade legislation or any other specific policies in his response, although he did say clean coal has a role in the future of American energy.

"Americans put a man on the moon, cured polio and created the Internet," Rockefeller said. "I have no doubt our innovative spirit is more than capable of balancing our need for energy and jobs with the health of West Virginians and the environment. No challenge is too big for us to solve.

"We can reduce carbon dioxide emission levels from existing industries while minimizing the adverse economic impact and creating new jobs. And with all of us working together, I believe we will."

Diversifying coalfields

Central Appalachian coal is on the decline. The degree to which Obama's environmental policy has encouraged that has been a source of political contention, falling primarily along party lines, with geographic exceptions in coal and other fossil fuel-heavy states.

Given the industry's size, its decline raises a lot of questions about what can be done in the absence of the coal industry.

"Throughout our state's history, we have experienced boom and bust cycles with respect to coal," Rahall said. "So whether we are considering an individual mine or the broader industry as a whole, we understand that if we want to see our communities and our State flourish for the long-term, we must diversify our economy."

Rahall added that coal will be a key part of the nation's energy mix in the foreseeable future and he will continue to support that industry. He blamed House Republicans for blocking "job-creating investments" such as roads, bridges and higher education and technology training.

"We would be foolish not to expand our transportation network, build the modern infrastructure that helps to attract and grow business, educate our children for the jobs of the future, and diversify our economic base by building on such firm foundations as tourism and high- technology," Rahall said.

Manchin said while we should not "turn our backs" on coal or the workers who produce it, government does have a role in aiding people through industry changes. The government should not, he said, be accelerating changes to the coal industry with regulation that "shoots this country in the foot."

"When industries change, government has always helped ease that transformation," Manchin said. "In West Virginia, it's especially important to make sure workers get the skills they need to get the jobs that exist. All leaders – whether state, local and federal – have an important role in creating those good jobs."

Capito said diversification is important, but added that the country needs to take a look at overall friendliness toward business.

"It is important that we do everything we can to bring jobs and economic growth to West Virginia," Capito said. "… In addition to coal, natural gas offers the prospect of new jobs for West Virginians.  Through a less burdensome regulatory process and a revised tax code that encourages economic growth, we should be working to grow jobs in all sectors of our economy."

Working together

With the general power ratio of Republicans to Democrats remains roughly the same as before the election, both parties are talking about compromise. Capito said she remain committed to protecting coal jobs but recognized a need to find commonalities.

"There is no question that the President will continue to advance his anti-coal agenda that directly impacts West Virginians, however with the President's party controlling the White House and the Senate, we have to work together and find common ground," she said.

That common ground can be difficult to find. Energy policy is often heavily drenched not only in ideological argument but also regional and financial interests. Rahall called energy one of the "toughest, most fractious issues" Congress faces, as well as one of its most important.

"And on top of dealing with the politics of energy, we also have to contend with the economics at a time when the government doesn't have money," Rahall said. "But it is imperative that America produce the energy it needs to fuel a strong economy, particularly through the use of coal, America's most abundant natural energy resource."

Manchin said he is looking forward to the future and is encouraged by Sens. Ron Wyden, D-Oregon, and Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, who will soon be in charge of the Senate Energy Committee. Manchin brought both to West Virginia recently for a series of tours of energy production sites.

He said he expects to see significant energy legislation passed in the coming session.

"I expect to see a lot more collaboration, especially with Ron and Lisa," Manchin said. "For the past few years, the House has able to pass legislation that recognizes the importance of coal. However, that legislation has not been bipartisan enough to pass the Senate. I am working hard to find a commonsense approach that can get bipartisan support in both chambers."

Distaste for coal

The end of the election may inspire collaboration, but it might not be a simple compromise. Capito said the current administration has shown "hostility to the fossil fuels that provide" baseload electricity in the U.S.

Manchin said the federal government "should be your partner" – opposite the way he and other West Virginia officials have perceived the EPA thus far.

"The fact is, everyone wants to breathe clean air and drink clean water," Manchin said. "We all want to move to cleaner energy sources, including renewables. Realistically, though, we need a baseload fuel source that can produce the power we need in this country. Baseload fuel sources have to be affordable, reliable and up to the task of providing the vast majority of our power. Those fuels are coal, natural gas and nuclear, and we need to rein in an EPA that is over-regulating Appalachian coal."

Rahall pointed to a statement by recently defeated Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney, referring to an incident where Romney said a specific coal-fired power plant in Massachusetts "kills people." Rahall said Romney wouldn't have been any more friendly to coal in the White House.

"Regardless of who occupies the White House though, our country needs a long-term energy plan that makes appropriate uses our natural resources, frees us from the bonds of foreign oil, and creates jobs," Rahall said.

Rahall also decried the actions of the Obama administration's EPA.

"(Coal's) future is increasingly cloudy thanks to the overzealous, and in many instances, unconstitutional actions on the part of the EPA," Rahall said. "I have led the fight in Congress against their brazen tactics which are increasingly depriving coal miners of their livelihood and the country of vital energy resources."

The future

Capito said the most important thing going forward is finding a balance of jobs and natural resource use.

"I would like to see Congress pass a national energy policy that puts West Virginia coal and natural gas at the forefront of an energy independent America, while also finding ways to use renewables, nuclear and alternative sources of energy.  When I say "all-of-the-above" energy plan, I mean it."

While coal, oil and gas are important, Rahall said he, too, thinks there should be government investment in energy research and development including carbon capture and sequestration.

"Renewable fuels still face a long road to be economically competitive.  In both cases, we have a problem in which the privates-sector is unwilling to make major investments in these relatively new energy frontiers," Rahall said. "That is traditionally where government has come in, but where we have not done enough -- and with this budgetary challenge hanging over us, and Republicans wanting to cut spending, eliminating those barriers will be a tough challenge to tackle."

Manchin said we particularly should look at investing in more infrastructure at home versus abroad.

"Everything came to a head on this issue for me this summer, when I learned that U.S. taxpayers are funding a $94 million power project in Afghanistan – including burying power lines," Manchin said. "If we did it in Afghanistan, don't you think we can do it in America? We shouldn't spend a single dollar building infrastructure in Afghanistan when we have such urgent needs here at home. We have to get out of Afghanistan and start rebuilding this country – and that includes critical infrastructure."

Manchin said as Congress gets back to work, "everything must be on the table" to live up to the country's potential and reach energy independence.

"The bottom line is that as our nation transforms, we need to have the fuels that will meet our economic and energy needs," Manchin said. "We'll have to maximize the opportunities we have to harness our own domestic resources, as well as develop the resources we need for the future. As we deplete the resources we have, we will naturally work through a transition to the fuels of the future – while making sure that our hard workers can still earn a good living and manufacturing can experience a resurgence here in this country."