As Americans experienced epic droughts, freakish hurricanes, and other extreme weather over the past few years, many are eager to see our nation secure a sustainable energy supply for the future that won't break our climate. But others -- most notably the polluting fossil fuel industries -- are eager to double down on the same old technologies that are responsible for the climate crisis in the first place.
Fossil fuel industry lobbyists descended upon the American Legislative Exchange Council's (ALEC) annual policy summit in Washington, DC last month. The Energy, Environment, and Agriculture Task Force met again to discuss new ways to block renewable energy and encourage the burning of fossil fuels. On the docket, a new bill, that would end run the EPA and promote the development of new coal mines (or something like that that is much more specific).
No Lobbying Here?
During the meeting, members enjoyed "educational" presentations by Rep. Jeff Duncan (R-SC), the American Chemical Council, and the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI). ALEC is a non-profit and insists that its activities are not lobbying. Duncan is a leading proponent of nuclear power and of drilling for fossil fuels offshore and in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The American Chemical Council advocated hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking," the controversial method of natural gas drilling that spoils millions of gallons of water and releases toxins into the environment. And you might remember CEI from their commercials claiming that carbon dioxide isn't a pollutant. ("They call it pollution; we call it life.")
Some of the New "Model" Bills
Another segment of the task force meeting was devoted to considering new "model bills."
The "Authorization for Participation in Low-Carbon Fuel Standards Programs Act" clearly references California and Oregon's Low-Carbon Fuel Standards Program, established in California in 2007 and in Oregon in 2009. The program was designed to limit the total greenhouse gas emissions of fuels used for transportation -- not only their emissions when used in your car's gas tank, but also the emissions from drilling, refining, and transporting them. Currently, a host of fossil fuel, trucking, and agribusiness groups are challenging California's rules in court. Odds are ALEC's model bill aims to halt such programs to limit carbon emissions on their tracks before they are introduced in more states.
Bypassing the EPA's Clean Water Regulations
ALEC's Intrastate Coal and Use Act is the only one that has already been introduced in a state legislature. West Virginia state representative Gary G. Howell proposed the bill before he was even sworn into his first term in the state legislature, back in late 2010. The bill aims to override the EPA by giving state governments the final say in whether or not to permit new coal mines so long as the coal from the mine is sold within the state.
During Obama's first term in office, coal production dropped dramatically from 1171.8 million short tons in 2008 to 1074.9 million short tons in 2009. Production has increased since then, but it as of 2011 it had not caught up to 2008 levels. Some blame environmental regulations for the decrease in coal production. However, production figures alone do not tell the full story.
In 2008, the world suffered a massive economic crisis and demand for coal declined. U.S. coal consumption peaked in 2007 at 1028.0 million short tons, decreased in 2008 to 1120.5 million short tons, and fell off a cliff in 2009, all the way down to 997.5 million short tons. Like production, consumption has increased since, but it has not fully recovered to 2008 levels. Since the economic crash in 2008, 2011 Annual Coal Report government analysts found that an increase in natural gas supply and mild winter weather contributed to decreased demand for coal.
Howell introduced his Intrastate Coal and Use bill hoping that the state government, unlike the federal government, would quickly issue permits for new coal mines in his home state of West Virginia. Legislators in Kentucky, another major coal producing state, quickly followed West Virginia's lead and introduced a similar bill of their own. In both states, the bills languished within the legislatures, never becoming law.
The Constitution gives the federal government the power to regulate all interstate commerce. As coal is often mined in one state and then sold to another state, the federal government can regulate it. But Rep. Howell and his colleagues in ALEC hope that by applying their bill only to coal mined, sold, and used within a state, they can bypass the federal government. Unfortunately for Howell, the leaders in the West Virginia House of Delegates felt that the bill was "probably unconstitutional."
ALEC says that its Energy, Environment, and Agriculture task force "operates under the principles of free-market environmentalism, that is to promote the mutually beneficial link between a robust economy and a healthy environment, to unleash the creative powers of the free market for environmental stewardship." But with some of the nation's largest polluters and their trade groups (including Peabody Energy, the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, Edison Electric Institute, and American Electric Power) among ALEC's sponsors, it's clear that they have no interest in anything besides promoting the polluting industries that led our climate to the brink in the first place.