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Policy: Environment & Energy

Obama plan sets up coal as Montana campaign issue

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BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) — President Barack Obama's plan to cut carbon dioxide pollution has opened a new front in Montana's U.S. Senate race as the general election campaign kicks off between Democratic Sen. John Walsh and Republican Rep. Steve Daines.

Daines, fresh off his Tuesday night primary victory, planned to travel Wednesday to Colstrip, home of the second largest coal-fired power plant west of the Mississippi River.

Colstrip figures to be a likely target in draft rules from the Environmental Protection Agency that call for reducing Montana emissions 21 percent from recent levels by 2030. It employs more than 300 workers, delivers power across the Pacific Northwest and is Montana's single largest source of carbon dioxide, a gas blamed by scientists for causing global temperatures to rise.

Daines, who has said the "jury is still out" on whether climate change is human-caused, said Obama's proposal illustrates one of his main campaign issues: improving the economy and reducing government regulations.

"It's important Montana have a voice in Washington to fight these job-killing regulations," Daines said during a Wednesday appearance with business community representatives in Billings. He said Congress needs to be involved in coming up with "reasonable regulations" that balance environmental goals with the economy.

The visit underscores how the Democratic president's plan could affect members of his party who are running for office in coal-producing states.

Since his February appointment to the Senate to replace former Sen. Max Baucus, Walsh has shown he's no enemy to coal, lobbying fellow lawmakers this spring for a tax credit that would benefit a coal company on Montana's Crow Indian Reservation.

Yet even for Democrats friendly to the industry, Obama's Monday announcement instantly put their election prospects into "political jeopardy," said James Lopach, retired chairman of the University of Montana's political science department.

"It will be relatively easy for Daines to put Walsh on the hook about coal," Lopach said, "then it will be up to Walsh to wiggle off the hook."

Up to this point, Walsh's main campaign themes included health care for veterans and other veterans' issues, reducing the national debt, gender pay equality and affordable high education. He was to spend Wednesday in Washington, where the Senate is in session, campaign spokeswoman Lauren Passalacqua said.

He responded to Obama's climate announcement by saying he believes the plan is on the right track to reduce emissions, but he will be listening to state residents on what they think about the proposed rules. Doing nothing, his campaign said, could result in economic impacts to two of Montana's major industries, outdoor recreation and agriculture.

"You've got to set goals out there. As a country and as a state, you've got to work toward those goals," Walsh said. "We know we have to reduce energy consumption around the globe, and this is a way to do that. But it's got to be right for Montana."

Walsh said he believes global warming is happening and humans are a cause. But traditional energy must continue to be developed responsibly, he said.

"It's very important that we wean ourselves off of fossil fuels. Is that going to happen next year, the next two years? I don't think it is," he said during a recent debate in Great Falls.

Coal mining interests have given Daines $62,850 so far this election cycle, making him one of the industry's top recipients in Congress, according to the political money-tracking website OpenSecrets.org. Among those donating to his campaign were Arch Coal Inc., Murray Energy, Cloud Peak Energy and the National Mining Association.

Political committees and individuals linked with electric utilities have given the Republican $31,100.

Walsh received $1,250 from electric utilities and no major donations from coal interests, according to the group.

Obama's plan gives states until at least 2017 to come up with individual plans to meet the federal government's target for emissions reductions. Montana has a head-start after already reducing some emissions under a 2005 law that said 15 percent of the state's electricity must come from renewable sources by 2015.

As a result, the issue is unlikely to come to a head before the election is over.

Daines is expected to gloss over such distinctions as he seeks to capitalize on the plan's potential to hurt the industry. For Montana, with the largest coal reserves in the U.S., those economic impacts extend beyond Colstrip and several smaller power plants, to include the state's six major coal mines and their more than 1,200 employees.

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Volz reported from Helena.

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