King Coal Looms Large Over West Virginia Senate Race, Climate Legislation

Byrd's late-in-life acceptance of "mounting science of climate change" unlikely to be embraced by top contender for his seat

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WASHINGTON—With Democratic Gov. Joe Manchin a potential shoo-in as West Virginia’s next U.S. senator, environmentalists in the Mountain State have a single-word plea to the rest of the country’s voters: Help!

If and when Manchin does join the upper chamber, they see little to no chance of him budging on his vocal opposition to any climate legislation that involves cap-and-trade or a coal diet. So they’re pulling for voters from the nation’s 10 or so “toss-up states” to elect Senate candidates eager to tackle climate change after the November mid-term elections.

“Obviously, that’s what we have to count on – other states,” Jim Sconyers, chair of the Sierra Club’s West Virginia Chapter, told SolveClimate in a recent interview. “Basically, we’re watching this whole Manchin thing unfold and not feeling very optimistic. He’s a fool for coal. To envision him stepping into Sen. Robert Byrd’s shoes is a frightening thought.”

The conservative Democratic senator, who died June 28 at the age of 92, had just begun to warm to the idea that the momentum to act on climate change and its attendant energy issues might be reaching critical mass. Byrd would have been up for re-election in November 2012.

When reached by telephone, a spokeswoman for Manchin seemed unfazed by Sconyers’ comments.

“The governor strives hard to listen to all sides and bring people together,” press secretary Sara Payne Scarbro told SolveClimate. “The governor believes that there should be a balance between mining coal and protecting our environment.”

If West Virginia opts for a special election this fall, that puts 37 Senate seats up for grabs. And though the toss-up list is still evolving, the states with no clear front-runners now include: Arkansas, Colorado, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Missouri, New Hampshire, Nevada, Ohio and Pennsylvania.

Other states, such as California, Connecticut and Wisconsin, are leaning Democrat, with no guarantees of that happening. Likewise, voters in Delaware, Florida, Louisiana and North Carolina might snub the expected Republican winner.

Simple arithmetic, Sconyers and his colleagues say, indicates that the Senate will need at least 62 Democrats and Independents to pass meaningful climate and energy legislation. Sixty votes won’t be enough because Manchin and fellow Democrat Jay Rockefeller – the state’s sole senator for the time being – won’t be inclined to support the measure.

“Our entire congressional delegation all sings from the same music,” Sconyers said. “They are staunchly ‘anti’ climate change legislation and ‘pro’ do anything to keep coal being mined in West Virginia.”

Carol Browner, the White House’s top climate adviser, called Monday for the U.S. Senate to pass comprehensive clean energy and climate legislation immediately. Political observers, however, seem to doubt senators will act before their summer recess begins Aug. 9, or during a September and October session that precedes the mid-term election.

Still, Browner, the director of the Obama administration’s policy on energy and climate, and a former head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, wrote an op-ed in Politico saying, “It is imperative that we finally deliver the promise of clean energy. That’s why President Barack Obama has acted aggressively to develop and promote homegrown clean energy.”

Replacing Byrd: Likely Possibilities

How the Mountain State would choose to replace the nation’s longest-serving member of Congress has taken numerous twists and turns in the offices of West Virginia’s secretary of state and attorney general following Byrd’s death last month.

Eventually, State Attorney General Darrell McGraw, a Democrat, ruled the governor has the power to set the date for a special election. That prompted Manchin to call for appointing a temporary replacement in the interim. He has vowed not to appoint himself to the seat.

At a special legislative session set to begin in Charleston Thursday, West Virginia lawmakers are supposed to rewrite the state’s intricate election laws, thus smoothing out succession details on the gubernatorial and senatorial front.

Observers say that could lead to a September senatorial special primary, followed by a Nov. 2 election. Those changes are estimated to cost the state between $4 million and $6 million, state officials say. During these tough economic times, that expense might give some legislators fodder for delaying a special election.

Observers say Manchin could choose any number of West Virginia Democrats to warm the Senate seat for him over the next several months. The short list includes former governors Bob Wise and Gaston Caperton, as well as Rep. Alan Mollohan, who lost his bid for a 15th term to state Sen. Mike Oliverio in the May primary.

Was Byrd Turning the Corner on Climate?

If Byrd could have hung on for several more months, conservationists say, he might have provided a crucial vote to push climate and energy legislation through this summer or fall.

Sconyers wasn’t certain the native West Virginian was “a born again climate advocate,” but representatives of the West Virginia Highland Conservancy and the West Virginia Environmental Council say they perceived Byrd’s late-in-life epiphanies to be telling.

“At the end, Robert Byrd, God bless his soul, seemed like he might be the voice of reason with global climate change and energy. That was gratifying, if short-lived,” said Cindy Rank, of the Highland Conservancy. “But everything Manchin has done in the state indicates he won’t be as open as Byrd seemed to be becoming. I find that disheartening.

And unless somebody comes out of the woodwork at the last minute, the likely candidate is Manchin. He’s been grooming himself for this.”

Rank now chairs the Highland Conservancy’s mining committee, but also has served as president of the 43-year-old group. Membership stands between 1,500 and 1,700.

Recently, she said, Byrd started to talk about moderating West Virginia’s one-sided stance on curbing heat-trapping gases so the state would have a seat at the table in the carbon conversation.

“But we’re not ready as a state to recognize that we need to take just the first steps away from coal,” Rank said. “The idea of blasting apart mountains and filling valleys with the waste is doing so much harm. We have to start somewhere and that’s the most egregious, offensive and destructive process that is costing the state and environment a whole lot more than what we’re getting for it.”

Will Manchin Have a Challenger?

No Democrat except Manchin has yet expressed specific interest in Byrd’s seat – and Manchin can’t become an official candidate until state legislators revise election laws. It is expected that U.S. Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, who is running for a sixth term, would be the front-runner to become the Republican nominee. She has not declared her candidacy but she did issue a statement calling for a special election this year because 28 months is too long for an appointed senator to serve.

In an ideal world, said conservationist Don Garvin Jr., he is seeking a Senate candidate who shares Byrd’s passion for public lands, concern for people and what he calls the senator’s strong environmental record on water and air quality issues.

Unfortunately, that option doesn’t seem to be surfacing this year, he noted.

As the longtime legislative coordinator for the West Virginia Environmental Council, a statewide coalition of environmental organizations formd in 1989, Garvin said he noticed Byrd eventually realized West Virginia would miss out on clean technologies and healthier lifestyles if the state continued to balk at federal energy and climate legislation.

“To be part of any solution, one must first acknowledge a problem,” Byrd wrote in a December 2009 commentary titled “Coal Must Embrace the Future.” “To deny the mounting science of climate change is to stick our heads in the sand and say ‘deal me out.’ West Virginia would be much smarter to stay at the table.”

Though Byrd never reached the point where he talked about abolishing mountaintop mining, Garvin pointed out, he began embracing what elected officials in coal states such as Pennsylvania, Wyoming and Montana started realizing – that their chief energy resource is a dinosaur that won’t last forever.

“If you read his letters carefully, that’s where Byrd was going and that’s where he wanted the state to go,” Garvin said. “Unfortunately, our current governor has no such vision. He tries to talk the talk but everything he does is pro coal.”

Manchin: Cap and Trade Costs Dollars, Jobs

Scarbro, Manchin’s press secretary, says the governor’s energy views are reflected in “West Virginia Energy: Powering America’s Future,” a publication produced by the state’s Department of Commerce.

The four-page brochure suggests a national cap and trade system would add unnecessary volatility to the energy market, compared to the predictability of a carbon tax. It goes on to say recent cap and trade legislation approved by the U.S. House would harm West Virginia’s economy, costing thousands of jobs and billions in gross domestic product over the next two decades.

The publication also discusses the necessity of investing in renewables and in fossil fuel technologies, such as carbon sequestration and coal-to-liquids projects.

Manchin’s most recent state of the state address left little doubt about his affection for the black gold buried in the hills of West Virginia.

“Despite the fact that half of our nation’s electricity is generated by coal, and that our national economy depends on this abundant, reliable and affordable energy, some want to villainize this resource that helped us win two world wars and built the greatest country in the world,” he told his constituents in his 2010 speech.

“We are reaching new and better ways to use our coal,” he continued. “There is a balance to be had between our economy and our environment and West Virginia is leading the way in finding that balance.”

Keep On Keeping On

Garvin, Rank and the Sierra Club’s Sconyers are all too familiar and frustrated with Manchin giving speeches behind lecterns plastered with “Friends of Coal” signs and praising a statewide renewable energy standard that favors a portfolio of fossil fuels and barely accounts for solar, wind or other standard renewables.

If and when Manchin joins the Senate, Garvin’s instinct is to keep pushing for more sustainable solutions.

In the end, Garvin is philosophical about Congress eventually guiding the nation toward a low-carbon future. He views it as an endurance contest.

“These things take time,” he concluded, adding that taxing and regulating carbon are the only way to alter people’s habits. “If it isn’t this Congress it will be the next, the next or the next.

“Do I want this Congress to do something about it? Absolutely. Do I want our congressional delegation to be part of this so they get financial help to ease the pain on our state that’s so reliant on an extractive industry? Yes, I do. And that’s what the Environmental Council will continue to try to do.”

(Photo: Jason Scott Means)