Policy: Environment & Energy

Mitch McConnell bashes environmental regs he backed in 1990

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In a new campaign ad called “Stand for coal,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's voice booms powerfully over a soaring musical score.

“I tell you, I will be the leader of the forces that take on the war on coal,” he says over video of pro-coal Kentuckians, an American flag, and McConnell himself.

The over-the-top video is a paen to McConnell as a defender of one of Kentucky’s largest and most influential industries, coal. It’s also an Image he will try to cement in the minds of campaign contributors and voters as he faces a competitive bid for re-election in 2014.

Indeed, just as the Environmental Protection Agency prepared this week to release new rules regulating coal-fired power plants, McConnell pushed to stop the agency from implementing them. Meanwhile, McConnell's campaign sent out a fundraising email touting his pro-coal credentials.

But, more than two decades ago, McConnell was one of 89 senators who voted for the Clean Air Act amendments that authorized the EPA to regulate such air pollution in the first place.

“It's probably not possible to craft a Clean Air bill that doesn't have some kind of impact on those who mine coal in America,” McConnell conceded in a speech on the Senate floor in March 1990, as the act was being debated.

At the time, McConnell was working with then-Sen. Robert Byrd, R-W.Va., to approve a federal compensation package for the coal miners who stood to lose their jobs in light of new environmental regulations. The amendment ultimately failed.

When McConnell later voted to approve the Clean Air Act, though, he nevertheless hailed the bill as an achievement.

“I had to choose between cleaner air and the status quo,” McConnell told the Lexington Herald Leader. “I chose cleaner air.”

Asked why McConnell is now fighting the same regulations he once supported, his office said the law has evolved in such a way that it no longer sits well with the Senate minority leader.

“McConnell is fighting its expansion into areas it was never intended to regulate,” a McConnell aide said. “It was never meant to regulate carbon emissions.”

The Clean Air Act authorizes the EPA to, as it deems necessary, add to the list “pollutants which present, or may present, through inhalation or other routes of exposure, a threat of adverse human health effects...or adverse environmental effects.”

In 2003, the EPA claimed it could not regulate greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act because even though their harmful effects were known to Congress when it approved the measure in 1990, lawmakers chose not to identify greenhouse gases as pollutants in the act.

But the Supreme Court ruled in a landmark case in 2007 that the EPA could — and, indeed, should — regulate greenhouse gases.

Of greenhouse gases emitted from electricity production in the U.S., roughly 80 percent come from coal, and so the coal industry has become a target of groups seeking to promote cleaner energy production.

Lawmakers of both parties try to cater to the coal industry in Kentucky, the third-highest coal producing state in the U.S.

“Despite Sen. McConnell's rhetoric on coal, Kentucky coal jobs have fallen to the lowest number since 1927 under his so-called ?leadership' in Washington,” Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, McConnell's Democratic challenger, said recently. “As your next U.S. Senator, I will continue to support the coal industry and its miners through common senses policies -- not lip service.”

But despite her pro-coal rhetoric, Grimes starts her campaign at a disadvantage to McConnell on coal-related issues — not because she has undermined coal interests, but because the industry views McConnell as its reliable champion in Washington.

To win over coal interests, Grimes will need to “explain how she can be a better advocate for coal in Washington compared to Sen. McConnell as well as, what will her relationship be with President Obama and [Senate Majority Leader] Harry Reid?” said Kentucky Coal Association President Bill Bissett.

“What those of us who support coal in Kentucky appreciate about [McConnell] is, he really has been the chief adversary to Obama,” Bissett added. “Yes, the Clean Air Act’s important and a factor in all of this, but right now is really what we’re concerned about and also moving forward.”

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Rebecca Berg

Political Correspondent
The Washington Examiner