Coal Tattoo

News from today’s Senate mine safety hearing

A protester holds a sign behind Massey Energy Company Vice President and General Council Shane Harvey, left, and Massey Energy Company Chief Executive Officer Don Blankenship, as they wait to testify on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, May 20, 2010, before the Senate Health and Human Services subcommittee hearing on mine safety. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

Hey folks — the Gazette’s servers and our whole building’s Internet service have been off and on all day today. So I’m sorry for infrequent posts … and for not having a more complete blog post about today’s mine safety hearing.

But here’s a link to our print story, which is up online on the Gazette’s Web site.

You can find the prepared testimony and a link to the archived Webcast here.

Cecil Roberts, International President of the United Mine Workers of America, right, listens as Massey Energy Company Chief Executive Officer Don Blankenship testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, May 20, 2010, before the Senate Health and Human Services subcommittee hearing on mine safety. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

It’s possible that United Mine Workers President Cecil Roberts and Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship will suck all the oxygen out of the room later today, when they appear before a Senate Appropriations Committee panel to testify about the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster.

But it should also be interesting to see Sen. Robert C. Byrd grill Blankenship and the other witnesses. I’m told Sen. Byrd will attend for part of both of the hearing’s panels (one made up of government witnesses such as MSHA chief Joe Main, and the other made up of Roberts and Blankenship).  Sen. Byrd “is expected to ask tough and probing questions of all the witnesses,” a spokesman told me this morning.

Much of the focus is likely to be on Roberts vs. Blankenship … but remember, the topic of the hearing is:  Investing in Mine Safety: Preventing Another Disaster.

With that in mind, here’s hoping that lawmakers ask a few of these kinds of questions:

— Assistant Secretary Main, if the pattern of violations system isn’t working as a strong enough deterrent to repeated violations of mine safety and health standards, why isn’t your agency simply rewriting its internal criteria and scoring model, rather than going through the much longer process of a new rulemaking on POV?

— Assistant Secretary Main, why hasn’t your agency moved more quickly — perhaps through an Emergency Temporary Standard — to updated the hopelessly outdated rockdusting rules for underground coal mines?

— Assistant Secretary Main, when did your agency become aware of NIOSH studies which clearly show the need to mandate permissible electrical equipment only in intake airways of underground coal mines? And why haven’t you yet moved to make this necessary change?

— Dr. John Howard, director of NIOSH, when and how did your agency make MSHA aware of its research on the need to tighten rockdusting standards and mandate permissible electrical equipment only in intake airways? Why haven’t you done more to make public these research and to let lawmakers and the public know about inaction by MSHA on these important issues?

— Assistant Secretary Main and Dr. Howard, what are your respective agencies doing to get potentially defective emergency breathing devices out of the nation’s coal mines and to develop a newer, better such device for the future?

Those are just a few that come to mind … tune in at 2 p.m. to watch the Webcast on the committee Web site.

Coal and the latest climate bill

Sens. John Kerry, D-Mass., and Joseph Lieberman, I-Conn., at a news conference, with industry leaders, announcing their climate change bill on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, May 12, 2010.(AP Photo/Harry Hamburg)

If you want the complete rundown on the latest climate legislation — the newly introduced Kerry-Lieberman American Power Act, don’t miss this lengthy analysis by Darren Samuelsohn of Greenwire, via The New York Times.

The story has a rundown of all of the major provisions, as well as early reactions from various intrest groups. The bottom line:

The Kerry-Lieberman legislation will call for a 17 percent reduction in carbon pollution from 2005 levels by 2020; 42 percent by 2030 and 83 percent by 2050. Power plants will face the first restrictions, followed six years later by energy-intensive manufacturers.

The official summary released today includes this section titled “Ensuring Coal’s Future”:

— We empower the U.S. to lead the world in the deployment of clean coal technologies through annual incentives of $2 billion per year for researching and developing effective carbon capture and sequestration methods and devices.

— We also provide significant incentives for the commercial deployment of 72 GW of carbon capture and sequestration.

Let the debate begin …


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Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., wants to hold coal companies accountable for not reporting certain key health-and-safety information to their shareholders.

Byrd introduced an amendment yesterday to the huge Wall Street accountability bill (the Restoring American Financial Stability Act) as his first legislative response to the deaths  of 29 miners in an April 5 explosion at Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch Mine in Raleigh County, W.Va.

In a statement this morning, Sen. Byrd said:

Investors ought to know if a company is jeopardizing its workforce in order to maximize its profits.  In addition, failure to disclose these adverse safety or health conditions could have a significant financial impact on investors, especially if there is a halt in operations because a company failed in its obligation to protect its workers.

As we seek to make Wall Street more transparent and accountable to investors and Main Street America, I believe it is imperative that workers, investors and the general public receive a more complete and consistent analysis of whether the companies in which they have invested their funds are operating in a safe and healthy manner. Many companies maintain commendable health and safety records, and also disclose those records.  Unfortunately, not all companies maintain such good records.  Inconsistent disclosure in the past has made it hard to separate the wheat from the chaff.

Joining Sen. Byrd to co-sponsor the amendment was Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., who said today:

By disclosing important mine safety information to shareholders, it’s a win for companies doing a good job, and a much-needed alert for companies who are not. Currently, there is no requirement to publicly disclose safety records, which has allowed companies to operate without critical checks and balances. West Virginia suffered a terrible loss recently at the Upper Big Branch mine and we owe it to our miners and their families to do more to make mine safety a top priority.

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What I would ask MSHA’s Joe Main

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Later this afternoon, MSHA chief Joe Main will appear before a Senate committee to answer questions about the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster and about how his agency could strengthen enforcement at mines with a history of safety violations.

One key thing to watch is whether Senate Democrats ask Main — a former UMWA safety director appointed by a Democratic president — tough questions like they did of MSHA officials from a Republican administration following the Sago Mine disaster (not to mention Aracoma, Darby and Crandall Canyon). If they don’t … well, then one has to wonder what kind of oversight role Congress is going to play now that doing so means taking on members of their own party.

If it were up to me, these are a few of the things I would ask Joe Main at today’s hearing:

— Why haven’t you responded yet to the requests from Upper Big Branch widows that your agency conduct its investigation into this disaster out in the open, so everyone can see what questions are asked and ensure a full, fair and complete probe?

— Exactly what was MSHA coal administrator Kevin Stricklin heading to Kentucky on April 5 to talk to Massey about? If Massey mines were indeed having safety problems, why didn’t your agency take tougher action prior to an explosion that killed 29 men?

— Regarding your agency’s enforcement scheme, why are you taking the time to go through rulemaking to address the “pattern of violations” system, rather than immediately throwing out existing rules through an Emergency Temporary Standard, or by simply reversing the internal MSHA policies put in place by the Bush administration? Wouldn’t either of these strategies get reforms in place faster?

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Rep. Rahall quizzes OSMRE Director Joe Pizarchik

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A subcommittee of the House Natural Resources Committee held a hearing today to discuss budget proposals for a variety of Interior Department agencies, including the federal Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement. Coal Tattoo has previously suggested that Committee Chairman Nick J. Rahall, D-W.Va., might use his leadership position to push more of a public discussion about OSMRE’s role in dealing with major coal industry issues in Appalachia such as, well, mountaintop removal.

If you happened to watch the hearing Webcast, perhaps you wondered — as I did — if this subcommittee even knows that part of its job is to provide oversight of OSMRE. Subcommittee Chairman James Costa, D-Calif., ran the hearing and repeatedly butchered agency Director Joe Pizarchik’s name.

At first, it looked like Chairman Rahall wasn’t even going to attend.  I’m told he had back-to-back meetings, but decided to attend when the hearing ran longer than expected. So at the very end, Rahall got a chance to show what issues that OSMRE is dealing with he is concerned about … I’ll let you all read and draw your own conclusions …

Rep. Rahall opening statement:

… Coal has always been under attack. It doesn’t matter the administration it doesn’t matter the time of day, it doesn’t matter what year it is. Coal has consistently been under attack since coal was ever invented or discovered. And it’s not simply from, as current administration critics will claim, not simply from the environmental community. I refer to the huge media blitzes that we all see each and every day, whether it’s print media, TV media, or whatever, by other fossil fuel sources that are clearly anti-coal in their content, when you read what they’re saying. So, let’s be clear about that fact.

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This just in from the office of Sen. Robert C. Byrd:

Washington, DC – U.S. Senator Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., today said he welcomed as a “good start” the announcement by Massey Energy that they are pledging $1 million toward the construction of a new $8.6 million Marsh Fork Elementary School in Raleigh County.

Byrd last October blasted Massey Energy officials for their refusal to provide assistance to efforts to replace the existing Marsh Fork Elementary School because of potential health and safety concerns.  The Raleigh County School is adjacent to a coal silo constructed by Massey Energy, and sits at the foot of the company’s mountain top pond that holds back hundreds of millions of gallons of toxic coal slurry.

“This is a welcome and good start by officials at Massey Energy in announcing their pledge of $1 million for the construction of a new $8.6 million Marsh Fork Elementary School,” said Byrd.

“As Massey Energy moves to acquire Cumberland Resources through a stock offering, and helps pay for mountain top mining music concerts, I would hope that they will continue to keep the welfare of the young students at Marsh Fork Elementary in their hearts and in their minds.  These children are our future and it is my hope that all the necessary funds will be made available to construct a relocated Marsh Fork Elementary School soon,” Byrd added.

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Passage of the landmark health-care reform bill also means success for Sen Robert C. Byrd’s efforts to streamline the process for coal miners to obtain black lung benefits.

According to a press release from Byrd’s office, the senator inserted these two provisions in the legislation

— In cases where a miner has accumulated 15 or more years of coal mine employment, and there is medical evidence of totally disabling lung disease, there will be a legal presumption that the miner and his widow would be entitled to benefits — unless there is evidence proving that the miner’s disease was not black lung, or that the disease did not result from coal mine employment; and

— For widows of coal miners who spouses suffered from totally-disabling black lung disease and were collecting benefits, they would no longer have to reapply to retain their modest benefits.

It’s important to note that what this legislation does is reverse major cuts to black lung eligibility made during the Reagan administration in 1981. (See comments below for more discussion of this).

Miners or their widows seeking benefits have to navigate a very complicated system that often denies them simply because of the many adjudicatory hurdles.  The Daily Mail and the Chamber of Commerce campaigned against this legislation, in some cases wildly misstating what was in the bill. One Daily Mail editorial, for example, said:

Byrd inserted into the Democratic health insurance bill a provision under which anyone who worked in coal mines for 15 or more years would be presumed to have black lung disease, and therefore be entitled to compensation.

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Last week, West Virginia Congressman Nick Rahall received the Humane Legislator of the Year award from the Humane Society.

The group cited Congressman Rahall’s work on the Restore Our American Mustangs Act to overhaul the Interior Department’s management of wild horses on public lands and restore the prohibition on the commercial scale and slaughter of wild horses and burros.  The group also thanks Rahall for “skillfully guiding” 11 wildlife protection measures successfully through his Natural Resources Committee and to approval by the full House.

In response, Jeff Biggers wrote on The Huffington Post that the Human Society’s recognition of Rahall was the “Bogus Award of the Week“, because of Rahall’s refusal to publicly oppose mountaintop removal and work to oppose the practice:

This might be one of the Humane Society’s cruelest acts against animals, and humanity.

Wow, wild jack asses and horses can run free in the West.

What is the Humane Society thinking? Don’t they know about the nightmare of mountaintop removal …

It was quite an attack. Was it unfair or was it right on the money? I’ll let you decide that. But it did get me thinking once again about Nick Rahall and mountaintop removal, and about Rahall and the coal industry in general.

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This just in: Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., on why he declined to co-sponsor Sen. Jay Rockefeller’s bill to block EPA from issuing greenhouse gas limits:

I do not plan to cosponsor Senator Rockefeller’s legislation at this time.  I was encouraged by the response last week from EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson to a letter that I signed along with other Senators that would delay into next year the application of stronger standards regarding increased efficiency or reduced pollution at large power plants and factories. Following up on my previous conversations with her in my office, I take her at her word.

In addition, as I have pointed out in my op-ed of December 3, 2009 entitled ‘Coal Must Embrace the Future,’ West Virginia needs to have a seat at the negotiating table.  I am continuing to have significant discussions about how to ensure the future of coal as a long-term energy resource.  I am reluctant to give up on talks that might produce benefits for West Virginia’s coal interests by seeming to turn away from on-going negotiations.  I will continue to negotiate with all who are earnestly engaged in the pursuit of a proper balance between saving jobs, protecting the environment and ensuring the health of our communities.


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West Virginia Sen. Jay Rockefeller today is introducing legislation seeking to delay — for two years — any federal limits on greenhouse gas emissions.

Rockefeller says his bill aims to give Congress:

… The time it needs to address an issue as complicated and expansive as our energy future … Congress, not the EPA, must be the ideal decision-maker on such a challenging issue.

West Virginia’s senator previously joined the charge against any effort by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to regulate greenhouse emissions, something the U.S. Supreme Court has said EPA clearly has the authority (the obligation, actually, if you bother to read EPA’s endangerment finding) to do.

Rockefeller’s legislation is available online here, as is a previous letter from the senator to EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson and Jackson’s reply. Rockefeller said:

Two weeks ago, I sent a letter to EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson challenging EPA’s potential regulation of greenhouse gases. Administrator Jackson responded quickly and showed some willingness to move the agency’s timetable for regulation to the end of 2010.  This is a positive change and good progress, but I am concerned it may not be enough time. 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.  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.

Of course, the problem with what Rockefeller is doing is that the House of Representatives has already passed climate change legislation — a bill that the United Mine Workers of America union said provides a “remarkable” amount of “clean coal” money and ensures “the future of coal will be intact.”

But that hasn’t stopped Reps. Nick J. Rahall and Alan Mollohan, D-W.Va., and Rep. Rick Boucher, D-Va., from introducing companion legislation in the House of Representatives.

Politically, many progressive voices in the coal industry — including American Electric Power and the United Mine Workers — have pointed to the threat of EPA action on greenhouse gases as a strong reason for Congress itself to act. Without that threat of EPA rules hanging over its head, will Congress step up and do something?

Odd, isn’t it, that the background materials issued by Rockefeller’s office on this legislation didn’t include any draft of the senator’s own plan to actually do something about climate change, rather than just delay for the sake of the coal industry?


House sets hearing next week on MSHA backlog

It’s been a while, but we’ve written before on Coal Tattoo about the huge backlog of mine safety enforcement appeals filed by the industry in the wake of tougher penalties set up after the disasters of 2006.

Well, not the U.S. House Committee on Education and Labor, under the leadership of Chairman George Miller, D-Calif., has scheduled a hearing for next Tuesday on this issue. According to the committee announcement:

On Tuesday, February 23, [at 10 a.m.] the U.S. House Education and Labor Committee will hold a hearing to assess whether a backlog of mine safety enforcement actions are adversely impacting the Mine Safety and Health Administration’s ability to protect miners’ safety and prevent future tragedies, and to evaluate options to remedy the problem.

There is a rapidly growing number of mine safety enforcement cases currently pending before the Federal Mine Safety and Health Review Commission (FMSHRC), a small independent agency which provides administrative trial and appellate review of contested citations, penalties, and worker retaliation cases. As the result of stepped-up enforcement and tougher penalties after a spate of mine tragedies in 2005 and 2006, mine owners tripled the number of violations they appeal and are now litigating 67 percent of all penalties. The backlog of cases FMSHRC must review has jumped from 2,100 in 2006 to approximately 16,000 today.


Rockefeller defends tax breaks for big coal

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Buried among all the other coverage of President Obama’s budget proposal there have been a couple of pieces (see here and here) about the administration’s efforts to slow government subsidies for fossil fuels that contribute to global warming.

The White House explained the proposal — which would save the government $2.3 billion in coal tax breaks over a 10-year period — this way:

As we work to create a clean energy economy, it is counterproductive to spend taxpayer dollars on incentives that run counter to this national priority.  To further this goal, the Budget eliminates tax preferences and funding for programs that provide inefficient fossil fuel subsidies, which impede investment in clean energy sources and undermine efforts to deal with the threat of climate change.  We are eliminating 12 tax breaks for oil, gas, and coal companies, closing loopholes that will raise $36 billion over the next decade.  Moreover, this leadership in eliminating subsidies will also encourage prompter action by the major emerging economies to phase out their subsidies, which are in the hundreds of billions of dollars annually.

Of course, this proposal is meeting immediate opposition in the nation’s coalfields, as evidenced by this story in the Lexington Herald-Leader,  in which Kentucky officials “worry will mean heavy job losses in economically poor but coal-rich regions of Appalachia.”

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If West Virginia Congressman Nick J. Rahall will jump out of an airplane to show his support for the coal industry, you think he’s going to think twice about a little thing like joining a congressional caucus?

Of course not.

And indeed, Rahall’s office just announced that the congressman from Southern West Virginia has joined out state’s other two House members — Democrat Alan Mollohan and Republican Shelley Moore Capito — in joining the “Coal Caucus.”

As described by Capito’s office, the purpose of the group is to “provide a voice for coal communities in Congress.”  Not wanting to be outdone, Mollohan — who previously served as lawyer for CONSOL Energy — also joined.

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Well, Sen. James Inhofe’s crusade to be a one-man truth squad at the international climate talks in Copenhagen went so well for him (a reporter from Der Spiegel told him “You’re ridiculous” when Inhofe tried to spin his views that global warming science is a hoax), that the Oklahoma Republican is now going to enter the debate over mountaintop removal coal mining.

Inhofe, the ranking Republican on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, this morning issued a report that purports to show, according to a press release, that the Obama administration’s review of mountaintop removal permits is “killing jobs, threatening energy security.” According to Inhofe:

Since President Obama took office, the Obama administration has taken several actions to obstruct, delay and ultimately halt surface coal mining operations in Appalachia. Unfortunately, such action by the Obama administration will destroy jobs in the Appalachian region and threaten our nation’s energy security.

The report focuses on EPA’s review — and threatened veto — of the Clean Water Act permit issued by the federal Army Corps of Engineers for the Spruce No. 1 Mine, the largest mountaintop removal mine in West Virginia history.

But the report ignores some major developments in the last few weeks. Perhaps that’s because it’s based in large part on a response from West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Randy Huffman to questions posed by Inhofe several months ago. It’s also interesting to note that the Inhofe report mirrors arguments Arch Coal Inc. has made against EPA’s efforts to force the company to reduce the impacts of this huge mining proposal.

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That’s West Virginia’s Republican Congresswoman, Shelley Moore Capito, and her husband, Charles, shown as part of a CBS Evening News investigation, “Climate Summit turned junket.”

The piece described the size of the congressional delegation who went to Copenhagen last month for international climate talks:

Our investigation found that the congressional delegation was so large, it needed three military jets: two 737’s and a Gulfstream Five — up to 64 passengers — traveling in luxurious comfort.

Add senators and staff, most of whom flew commercial, and we counted at least 101 Congress-related attendees. All for a summit that failed to deliver a global climate deal.

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Coal industry lobbyists must be pretty worried about the possibilities for passage by Congress of the Appalachian Restoration Act. The National Mining Association yesterday sent out an alert asking its members and supporters to contact lawmakers and voice opposition to the bill:

The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee could soon vote on legislation introduced by Sens. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) and Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) that could eliminate or severely restrict all types of coal mining.

ACT now and contact your Senators and urge them to oppose the so-called “Appalachian Restoration Act” (S. 696).

This bill jeopardizes the future of domestic coal mining and will saddle American consumers and businesses with massive energy price hikes.  Hundreds of thousands of mining jobs could be lost and many projects intended to stimulate the economy will never be brought to fruition.

ACT now and urge Congress to reject misguided and ill-informed efforts to prohibit mining practices that create good American jobs and help power our homes and businesses with abundant and affordable domestic energy.

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Coal and the new Senate climate ‘framework’

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From left, Sen. Joseph Lieberman, I-Conn., Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and Sen John Kerry D-Mass. meet reporters on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, Dec. 10, 2009, during a news conference to discuss comprehensive climate change and energy independence legislation. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

A bipartisan trio of U.S. senators today released a “framework” for the climate change bill they are trying to write.

The outline is available here.  And this is what it has to say about coal, under a section titled, “Ensuring a future for coal”:

Our country has plentiful, accessible coal resources and infrastructure. It is a key component of our current fuel mix. As Senator Byrd pointed out in a recent op-ed, “No deliberate effort to do away with the coal industry could ever succeed in Washington because there is no available alternative energy supply that could immediately supplant the use of coal for base load power generation in America.” He also acknowledged that, “to deny the mounting science of climate change is to stick our heads in the sand and say ‘deal me out’. . . The truth is that some form of climate legislation will likely become public policy because most American voters want a healthier environment.”

We agree with both statements.

However, due to current regulatory uncertainty, it is increasingly challenging to site new coal facilities, and utilities are switching to other fuel sources. Earlier this month, an electric utility in North Carolina announced its plans to take 11 existing coal facilities out of operation. Coal’s future as part of the energy mix is inseparable from the passage of comprehensive climate change and energy legislation. We will commit significant resources to the rapid  development and deployment of clean coal technology, and dedicated support for early deployment of carbon capture and sequestration.

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House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., is leading a congressional delegation to Copenhagen next week for the continuing climate change talks, and West Virginia Republican Shelley Moore Capito is among the House members scheduled to go.

Here’s a statement issued by Rep. Capitol’s office this afternoon:

This conference may be taking place in Copenhagen, but the outcomes stand to have real-world impacts right here in West Virginia.  That’s why I’m pleased to represent our state and represent the interests of mining communities as part of a diverse, bipartisan delegation. We’re a coal state, we’re an energy state.  West Virginia deserves a voice and I’m proud to offer it. 

We all share the goals of a greener energy future, with improved energy efficiency and a diverse energy portfolio.  Yet we also have an obligation to work towards those goals in a way that doesn’t devastate the economies in the communities we represent.  From job loss to increased energy rates, emissions cuts and a new cap-and-trade regime are not without serious costs for families across our state.

As the President and his Administration engage in Copenhagen, it’s critical that they remember that their commitments on the international stage will have consequences on the local one.  Put simply, I remain skeptical that that the Administration’s goal of 17% emission reduction is economically viable, particularly at a time of economic distress.

Just this week the President announced his new ‘jobs’ plan, yet I can’t help but think that the policies he favors – and the commitments he stands to make in Copenhagen – contradict his stated goals of job creation.

While I support global engagement and dialogue on this issue, I will continue to raise my concerns surrounding the economic impact surrounding these discussions.

Recall that Rep. Capito voted against the House version of the climate change bill,  and Coal Tattoo has written before about her views on global warming here, here, here and here.

No climate bill likely ‘this year or next’?

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The New York Times reports this morning, in a story headlined, “No clear map for Democrats on path to new energy plan”:

Congress is unlikely, this year or next, to establish the “cap and trade” system for curbing carbon emissions that Mr. Obama and party leaders seek. Nor are world leaders at a climate conference in Copenhagen next month likely to strike a concrete deal to limit emissions in the name of curbing global warming.

The reason?

Though advocates insist that transforming energy policy will bring economic and environmental benefits alike, rising joblessness has amplified attacks from critics who deride Mr. Obama’s energy policy as a big-government “cap and tax” plan.

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