Coal’s clout in Congress to take a hit

Coal’s clout in Congress to take a hit
© Greg Nash

The coal industry is slated to lose clout in the next Congress, with term limits set to force out a chairman who has frequently battled with the Obama administration on behalf of mining companies.

Rep. Hal Rogers (R-Ky.) will relinquish the gavel of the House Appropriations Committee in January, after having led the powerful panel for six years, which is the maximum allowed under GOP rules.

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While Rogers has sought to cut spending and roll back regulations as chairman, he’s given special attention to coal.

His home district in eastern Kentucky relies on coal for jobs, cheap electricity, tax revenue and more, and he blames President Obama for the 11,000 miners who he says have lost jobs in his district since 2008.

Without fail, the bills that pass out of Rogers’s committee propose large funding cuts to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and include riders to stop contentious rules from the EPA and the Interior Department that would hurt coal interests. The riders attack rules like carbon dioxide limits for power plants, the water pollution jurisdiction rule and Interior’s rule to protect streams from mountaintop removal mining.

“Without a doubt, the EPA’s regulatory agenda is not working,” Rogers said at a committee meeting this month to consider the EPA and Interior spending bill. “Certainly not for coal-mining communities, or American businesses and industries, or for hardworking Americans who rely on having good jobs and reasonable energy bills to take care of their families.”

While few of the pro-coal provisions survive in the final bills signed by Obama, Rogers has helped bring attention to the industry and its dramatic decline, which has been hastened by the abundance of cheap natural gas.

Industry representatives said that although Republicans generally fight for coal, Rogers goes above and beyond, and the sector will miss having him atop the Appropriations panel.

“Congressman Rogers has been publicly outspoken in support of our industry and against the president,” said Bill Bissett, head of the Kentucky Coal Association, adding “there is a concern there” about Rogers losing the gavel. “He’s been able to bring to light a lot of the overregulation of the Obama administration, which is greatly appreciated.”

Rogers won the Appropriations chairmanship in a three-way race after the 2010 elections, beating out then-ranking member Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.) and then-Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.), a Tea Party favorite.

While Rogers could be granted a waiver from GOP leadership to serve a fourth term as Appropriations chairman, those waivers are rare.

One of the few waivers in recent years went to Rep. Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanInterior fast tracks study of drilling's Arctic impact: report Dems unveil slate of measures to ratchet up pressure on Russia National Dems make play in Ohio special election MORE (R-Wis.), who was allowed to continue as chairman of the Budget Committee in 2013. But Ryan was a rising star in the GOP, and when he was granted the waiver in November 2012, he had just left the campaign trail as GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney’s running mate.

Ryan is now the Speaker and has been cautious about angering the conservative wing of the House caucus by bending the rules.

If Rogers’s term as chairman ends, aides and lobbyists say Rep. Rodney FrelinghuysenRodney Procter FrelinghuysenOvernight Energy: Proposed rule would roll back endangered species protections | House passes Interior, EPA spending | House votes to disavow carbon tax House completes first half of 2019 spending bills 'Minibus' spending conference committee abruptly canceled MORE (R-N.J.), chairman of the defense subcommittee, would be the most likely successor, subject to approval from the Republican Steering Committee. Rogers would then likely chair a subcommittee.

Frelinghuysen has a “strong interest” in the Appropriations Committee gavel and strongly opposes Obama administration policies that hurt coal, said Steve Wilson, his spokesman.

In a brief interview at the Capitol, Rogers said it’s “too soon” to talk about his future on Appropriations or whether he’ll seek a waiver to stay chairman. His spokeswoman, Jennifer Hing, said the only plan he’s made for the next Congress is to run for reelection.

In a statement, Rogers explained why he feels defending coal is so important.

“I am mindful of every vote and every policy that impacts the very livelihood of the men and women working hard in coal country to put food on the table, pay their bills and loyally work to power our nation from the depths of the Earth,” he said.

“However, the Obama administration’s War on Coal has pierced the heart of our coalfields, resulting in more than 11,000 lost coal mining jobs over the last eight years, shuttering our coal-fired power plants, draining local economies and bypassing Congress at every turn to implement regulations that continue to be challenged in our courts.”

Michael Higdon, Rogers’s former chief of staff and now a vice president at lobbying firm Cornerstone Government Affairs, said Rogers’s passion for coal stems from his dedication to his home region.

“Arguably and in the face of a struggling coal economy, Chairman Rogers’ most important work has just begun in helping his district re-envision itself not as coal reliant, but as an enclave of highly-skilled, motivated and globally-connected workers,” Higdon said.

Environmentalists who have fought to shut down the coal industry won’t be sorry to see Rogers hand over the reins of the committee.

Radha Adhar, Washington representative at the Sierra Club, said the country is moving toward wind, solar and other clean energy sources.

“Chairman Rogers, on the other hand, has mostly stood in the way of any progress, pushing the agenda of big polluters rather than protect the health and safety of our communities,” she said.

Still, Adhar had some praise for Rogers, touting bipartisan legislation that would use some mine reclamation funds to help hard-hit coal communities as they seek other economic opportunities. That bill has received Obama’s support.

“It goes without saying that we strongly disagree with Chairman Rogers’ efforts to cozy up to coal executives, but it’s important to recognize his efforts to diversify Appalachia’s economy as our country moves away from coal through his efforts with the Reclaim Act,” Adhar said.

Updated at 10:14 a.m.