WASHINGTON – Colorado’s two Democratic senators sided with the White House on Wednesday when they voted to affirm what one GOP senator called “the centerpiece of President Obama’s war on coal.”
The rule, which proponents say is necessary to limit harmful emissions from coal-fired power plants, but that opponents say will destroy jobs and cause energy prices to skyrocket, narrowly survived an attempt at repeal yesterday.
Mark Udall and Michael Bennet opposed a measure that would have overturned the controversial EPA rule. The measure failed on a 46-to-53 vote yesterday.
A Bennet spokesman said the amendment’s supporters drew an unnecessary distinction between protecting public health and jobs in the coal industry.
“Colorado is already a national leader in reducing harmful mercury emissions from our power plants, all while continuing to count coal as part of our diverse energy mix. This amendment was a false choice between reliable electricity and public health. In Colorado we’ve learned we can have both,” Adam Bozzi said.
Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), the sponsor of Senate Joint Resolution 37, said he did not lobby Udall or Bennet to support his measure, adding that their names were not among the 30 senators he believed were open to voting for it. Udall and Bennet joined seven other Senate Democrats from major coal-producing states who opposed Inhofe’s amendment.
Presidential politics might have played a larger role in determining senators’ votes than the coal industry. Three red-state Democratic senators voted for the amendment – Ben Nelson of Nebraska, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, and Joe Manchin of West Virginia. One blue-state Republican opposed it – Scott Brown of Massachusetts. Senators from purple swing states such as Colorado voted along party lines.
After the vote, Udall and Bennet declined to speak to this reporter, choosing instead to hustle through doors into or stay in a members-only area and work on the Senate floor.
Inhofe suggested that the two senators would struggle to explain their votes to constituents. “Anyone who represents a state that’s in the top five or ten of coal production and voted against this amendment will have a major problem. They have to come up with a way to justify their votes,” he said in an interview.
The Centennial State ranked 11th in coal production in the United States in 2010, according to the Colorado Mining Association. With 10 active coal mines in the state, the industry employs 2,199 coal miners.
At issue is the extent to which the EPA rule would protect coal-industry jobs or preserve public health. The rule will reduce the annual allowable fine particle pollution from 15 micrograms per cubic meter to 12 or 13 micrograms.
In the run up to the vote Wednesday, supporters of Inhofe’s amendment said the measure sought to stop the Obama administration’s attacks on coal. “If you have a coal company that’s considering shutting its doors, this (EPA) law doesn’t kill coal immediately, but it’s the first major step,” Inhofe said.
The EPA rule will not go into effect until 2014, but both coal-industry supporters and the Obama administration have forecast doom if their side failed.
The National Economic Research Associates found that the EPA rule and other finalized and pending EPA regulations for power plants using coal could cost 183,000 jobs annually from 2012 to 2020.
Meanwhile, the EPA said the rule would improve public health by as much as $5.9 billion, noting that fewer people would suffer from mercury poisoning, cancer, and toxic-air related illnesses.
Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club, said in a statement that pro-green senators did the right thing: “We applaud the senators who voted against this contemptible attack on public health. Today’s vote clearly shows who is on the side of American families and who is on the side of those who would poison them.”