Dems pressure coal execs to drop opposition to climate legislation

House Democrats on Wednesday pressured coal-company executives to drop opposition to climate legislation at a hearing that also briefly touched on safety issues following the explosion last week that killed 29 miners.

Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.), the chairman of the House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming, urged executives from Peabody Energy, Arch Coal and Rio Tinto to “cease efforts to deny the science of global warming” and stop “misleading the public as to the true science behind climate change.”

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The focus of the committee’s hearing was the future of coal, but Markey also asked the executives if the number of safety violations reported at the Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia prior to the blast was unusually high.

Markey said the mine had received more than 1,300 citations for safety violations from the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration since 2005.

The executives said the citations at the mine seemed high, but added the type of mining done there posed hazards different from those of other mines. The executives all said the safety of miners was a priority for the industry. Officials from Massey Energy, which owns the Upper Big Branch mine, did not attend Wednesday’s hearing.

Markey said the explosion, the deadliest in four decades, necessitated a closer look at the “entire structure of mining safety.”

Rep. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) said the disaster brought new scrutiny on the industry. The blast, she said, has “led many to discuss the future of coal.”

As they defended their own companies’ safety records, Peabody chief executive Gregory Boyce, Arch Coal chief executive Steven Leer and Rio Tinto chief executive for energy and minerals Preston Chiaro also sought to distance themselves from Massey Energy and its outspoken chief executive, Don Blankenship, on climate issues.

Blankenship has called global warming a “hoax” and a “Ponzi scheme.”

Climate change was a “serious” issue that needed to be addressed, the executives said.

But House-passed climate legislation would drive up the costs of coal, hurting the industry and the broader economy, the executives argued.

They also oppose the effort by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to regulate greenhouse gas emissions through the Clean Air Act.

Peabody would support the “right kind” of climate legislation that allowed carbon reduction technologies like carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) to develop before imposing strict emissions caps, Boyce said.

Boyce said the EPA should “take a step back” and re-examine whether carbon dioxide emissions were a threat to human health and welfare.

EPA’s endangerment finding is the legal underpinning of its push to regulate greenhouse gases.

Mistakes in the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) call for a further evaluation of the climate science to “put to rest all of these issues,” Boyce said.

Peabody has filed a petition with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia in hopes of blocking EPA. The petition says EPA relied on faulty data to reach its endangerment finding.

Leer of Arch Coal, meanwhile, said e-mails hacked from East Anglia University in the United Kingdom “raise questions.” Some of the research at East Anglia was used in the IPCC report.

Those e-mails have been seized upon by climate legislation critics as evidence climate scientists were skewing the data supporting human-induced climate change. On Wednesday, however, an investigation by a panel of scientists into the so-called “Climategate” controversy found no evidence of scientific malpractice at the university.

Chiaro of Rio Tinto, which is part of a coalition of companies and environmental groups supporting climate legislation, voiced the strongest support for action on climate. He said the company believes the science behind climate change “is strong.” 

By contrast, the strongest complaints came from Michael Carey, the president of the Ohio Coal Association, who also testified Wednesday.

He said the Obama administration had declared a “war on coal’ through its regulatory efforts to reduce pollution.

That comment particularly agitated Rep. Jay Inslee (D-Wash.), who described the climate bill as a lifeline for the industry.

The bill would give an estimated $60 billion in subsidies to the sector over the next two decades to develop cleaner technologies through a new fee on transmission lines and also from the sale of pollution allowances in a market the bill creates.

“We don’t give $60 billion to al Qaeda,” Inslee said. “We don’t give $60 billion to industries we are at war with.”

Markey also described the bill as a bridge for the industry to adjust to new caps on carbon dioxide.

Coal use accounts for around 30 percent of the carbon dioxide emissions in the nation from human activity. But coal accounts for around 50 percent of the electricity production.

Markey said natural gas and renewable sources like wind and solar power are growing already, eating into coal’s dominant position in electric generation. He said the industry needed the money the bill he co-authored with Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) would provide it.

“The industry itself cannot generate the enormous investment that is needed to perfect and deploy CCS,” Inslee said.