Senators of Tiny West Virginia Hold Big Influence Over Delay in National Climate Law

Goodwin: I will not support any piece of legislation that threatens any West Virginia job, any West Virginia family, or long-term economic security

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WASHINGTON—As U.S. Senate Democratic leaders hunt and gather votes for possible legislation on global warming, odds-on they will skip a scouring of West Virginia’s peaks and valleys.

It’s abundantly clear that the Mountain State’s two senators—Democrats Jay Rockefeller and temporary appointee Carte Goodwin—are vehemently opposed to capping carbon. And even a special primary and election now scheduled for August and November won’t change those dynamics.

“They are not looking out for the national good on climate change,” Marshall University adjunct professor Bobby Nelson told SolveClimate in a Wednesday interview. “Their home state is the priority because that’s where the votes are. And they will vote against anything that they think doesn’t preserve mining jobs and an economy based on coal.”

Both Rockefeller and Goodwin—sworn in this week to replace the late Sen. Robert Byrd—are currently in the greenhouse gas spotlight as Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., today pulled the plug on climate legislation in the current session of Congress.

If a measure eventually makes it to the floor, the discussion is expected to include debate over a Rockefeller bill that would suspend the Environmental Protection Agency’s regulation of heat-trapping gases from stationary sources for two years.

As well, Goodwin and the man who appointed him who is also his likely successor, conservative Democratic Gov. Joe Manchin, have made it abundantly clear that they will not follow in Byrd’s footsteps by engaging in any 180-degree epiphanies that involve supporting cap and trade systems. Manchin announced his candidacy for Byrd’s seat Tuesday.

“For a small state, West Virginia has a lot of power these days,” said Nelson, who teaches political science at the Huntington, W. Va., college. “If our congressional representatives think traditional energy is at risk of federal regulations, they are going to try to hold that off.”

The Senate meets for just 12 more days before its summer recess officially begins Aug. 9. That gives senators a very short window to harness 60 votes for a bill that tackles heat-trapping gases and addresses a clear path toward clean energy. Traditionally, during election years, the unofficial end to legislative progress occurs when the chamber’s August recess begins.

Though he’s being tugged in multiple directions, Reid said he wants to draw up a measure that focuses on four key strategies: capping greenhouse gas emissions of electric utilities, setting a nationwide renewable energy standard, increasing economy-wide energy efficiency and crafting a response to the BP oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.

Is Rockefeller Measure Murkowski Redux?

Democratic leaders have promised Rockefeller that his legislation would come up for a vote by the end of the year. Rockefeller chairs the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee.

What’s officially called the Stationary Source Regulations Delay Act has support from six Democratic co-sponsors: Sens. Kent Conrad and Byron Dorgan of North Dakota, Tim Johnson of South Dakota, Claire McCaskill of Missouri, Ben Nelson of Nebraska and Jim Webb of Virginia.

Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va, has introduced companion legislation in the House of Representatives.

“We must set this delay in stone and give Congress enough time to consider a comprehensive energy bill to develop the clean coal technologies we need,” Rockefeller said via news release when he introduced his measure back in early March. “At a time when so many people are hurting, we need to put decisions about clean coal and our energy future into the hands of the people and their elected representatives, not a federal environmental agency.”

In a nutshell, Rockefeller wants EPA to delay the regulation of carbon dioxide and six other heat-trapping gases from electric utilities and other stationary emitters for two years. The catch is that EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson has announced that her agency will deploy the Clean Air Act to begin regulating emissions in January 2011. A Supreme Court ruling in April 2007 gave EPA the authority to treat greenhouse gases as a pollutant.

Understandably, Rockefeller’s measure puts environmental organizations on edge because it echoes a similar effort by Sen. Lisa Murkowski, ranking member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

The Alaska Republican drew up a disapproval resolution designed to block EPA’s science-based endangerment finding for greenhouse gases. Back in June, however, the Senate rejected a procedural motion on a 47-53 vote, thus putting the kibosh on Murkowski’s measure.

In addition to favor from all 41 Republican senators, however, her resolution also drew support from six Democrats. In addition to Rockefeller and Nelson, Sens. Evan Bayh of Indiana, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, and Blanche Lincoln and Mark Pryor of Arkansas also were on board.

Generally, neither Rockefeller nor Murkowski is opposed to the Obama administration’s plans to regulate tailpipe emissions and fuel economy standards. Their concern centers around the stationary sources laid out in EPA’s mid-May tailoring rule.

Nathan Willcox of Environment America anticipates that for procedural reasons the Democrats will need to rally only 41 votes, instead of the usual 50, to knock back Rockefeller’s measure because it will be attached as an amendment instead of presented as a separate bill.

“We’re mobilizing against it,” Willcox, director of the advocacy group’s global warming program, said in an interview Wednesday night. “It would be a close vote, by no means a slam dunk.”

Whether or not Congress passes cap and trade legislation, he continued, EPA is the non-negotiable linchpin to curbing greenhouse gases.

West Virginia Untangles Its Election Web

After Byrd died June 28 at age 92, West Virginia decision-makers realized they had to rewrite their convoluted election laws before replacing the conservative Democratic senator temporarily—and then more permanently.

It’s no wonder the governor called for a mid-July special legislative session after the secretary of state and attorney general had difficulty interpreting an outdated 1943 law concerning U.S. Senate terms. The catch was that the law required candidates vying to fill an unexpired term of 2 ½ years or longer to run in the first primary after the vacancy occurs, according to a Charleston (W. Va.) Gazette analysis.

However, the next primary wasn’t scheduled until May 2012 because the May 2010 primary date had already passed. Primary creep—common now in many states—has pushed West Virginia’s primary from August to May during the last 60-plus years.

During the special session that ended Monday, the Legislature opted to set an Aug. 28 primary date and add the general election to an expanded Nov. 2 ballot.

In the meantime, Manchin has appointed a 36-year-old Charleston attorney from a well-connected West Virginia family to the position. Goodwin, who served as the governor’s general counsel between 2005 and 2009, also worked on Manchin’s 2004 gubernatorial campaign. His uncle is a federal judge in the state and his wife heads Rockefeller’s West Virginia headquarters.

Not Following Byrd’s Turnaround

Byrd, who 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, would have been up for re-election in November 2012.

Evidently, Goodwin does not share Byrd’s recent conclusion that the Mountain State should take a fresh seat at the table to help hammer out low-carbon legislation.

“With regard to cap and trade, I will say this,” Goodwin told reporters during a recent press conference in Charleston after his appointment. “From what I’ve seen of the Waxman-Markey bill that passed the House of Representatives and other proposals pending in the Senate, they simply are not right for West Virginia.”

“I will not support any piece of legislation that threatens any West Virginia job, any West Virginia family, or jeopardizes the long-term economic security of this state,” he continued.

Goodwin’s comments and Manchin’s well-publicized, vociferous convictions indicate that the two are twin thinkers on the global warming front. While both might be open to a carbon tax, no such legislation has been floated in the Senate.

“With cap and trade, we don’t have a clear path to victory with either of those senators,” said Willcox of Environment America. “They are among a handful of Democrats who will be a tough vote on climate and energy legislation. Some of them would need very specific provisions in a bill to support it.”

Keeping Mountaintop Removal Mining on the Ballot

During his recent press conference, Goodwin stated that he is not interested in serving out the final two years of Byrd’s term. Thus far, Manchin appears to be a Democratic shoo-in. Only two other candidates have announced an intention to compete in the primary. One is former West Virginia secretary of state and U.S. Rep. Ken Hechler, 95, who will be opposing Manchin just to give progressive voters an alternative.

Nelson, the Marshall professor, said Hechler is an environmentalist who is on the ballot to keep mountaintop removal mining in the public’s eye. He served in Congress from 1959 to 1977 and as secretary of state for 16 years beginning in the 1980s.

“Manchin is going to win this thing hands down,” noted Nelson, adding that the filing period ends Friday.

On the Republican front, anticipated front-runner West Virginia Rep. Shelley Moore Capito announced Wednesday that she will not vie for Byrd’s seat this time around. Instead, she is seeking her sixth House term. Her campaign advisers were concerned that the new special election law could have invalidated Capito’s candidacy if she filed papers for both a House and Senate seat.

Nelson and other observers say Republican John Raese, 60, is considering a third Senate run. Byrd trounced him in 2006 but he came close to beating Rockefeller in 1984. The Morgantown businessman, who is the former chairman of the state Republican Party, hasn’t made an official announcement yet.

Quite frankly, Nelson said, he is amazed that a state with under 1 percent of the nation’s population—it ranks 37th—continues to leverage such a stranglehold on the country’s energy conversation. It ranks 41st in total area among US states and 40th in GDP.

But unless a miracle occurs, the professor doesn’t expect Rockefeller, Goodwin or Manchin to budge.

“This is about West Virginia thumbing its nose at environmental rules and regulations,” Nelson concluded. “Politicians have to oppose anything the Obama administration is doing in the name of energy when all the EPA is doing is trying to level the playing field. They vilify Lisa Jackson.

“They make it seem like all the federal government wants to do is shut down the mines and throw hundreds of people out of work. Then it becomes an us against them mentality.”

(Top Photo: US Senate Robert Byrd (D-WV), accompanied by fellow Senator Jay Rockefeller (D-WV), took the Oath of Office for a record ninth consecutive time in the Senate.)

See Also

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

EPA Okays First Mountaintop Removal Mining Project Under New Guidelines 

Sen. Byrd Rebukes Massey Energy Over Coal Mine Disaster, Questions Safety Practices