Wildfire Debate Hits Close to Home for Udall

July 9, 2012

Maggie Fox, wife of U.S. Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.), is President and CEO of the Climate Reality Project, a group founded by former Vice President Al Gore

DENVER – With wildfires burning across Colorado, political leaders from Denver to DC are searching for ways to minimize the impact and reduce the damage for future fire seasons.

Both sides seem to agree that beetle-kill timber is making things worse, but they differ on what’s ultimately responsible for the rapid rise in major fires. Environmental groups are blaming global warming, while others point to forest management practices that need review.

For one member of the Colorado Congressional delegation, U.S. Senator Mark Udall, the debate hits a bit closer to home.

The Boulder County Democrat is married to Maggie Fox, President and CEO of the Climate Reality Project, a group founded by former Vice President Al Gore.

The relationship between Gore and the Udalls is a tight one. At a conference in Aspen last year, Gore reportedly called Senator Udall “my senator. I don’t live in Colorado, but he’s my senator.”

When it comes to the wildfire debate, Gore and Fox’s Climate Reality Project is clear where it stands: global warming is causing them and the solution to ending them could mean the end of the coal industry.

“Scientists have been warning for years that climate change will make the West even hotter and drier,” said Hayden Brown, solutions associate for the Climate Reality Project in a June 20 web post. “Last spring, it was Arizona. Now it’s Colorado’s turn.”

Senator Udall appears to side with Fox and the Climate Reality Project when it comes to laying blame for the wildfires at the feet of global warming.

In June, according to the National Journal, Udall called Colorado’s forests “canaries in the coal mine for the effects of a warming climate.”

While Senator Udall may have been referencing coal mines idiomatically, the Climate Research Project makes a more direct tie between the fires and coal mines.

Climate Reality Project science and solutions director, Juanita Constible, pointed The Observer towards a recent Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) rule that would limit greenhouse gas emissions from newly constructed coal plants as “a great first step to reducing the impacts of climate change on Colorado’s forests.”

Climate Reality Project founder Gore has long been an anti-coal crusader, calling in 2008 for young people to engage in “civil disobedience to prevent the construction of new coal plants that do not have carbon capture and sequestration.”

Those in the coal industry feel differently about the rule, seeing it as a death knell for coal power. Critics contended the emissions limits were set at a level that is currently impossible for the industry to meet, essentially ending the production of new coal plants through the rule.

The head of the United Mine Workers of America colorfully told a West Virginia radio station back in March that the rule would cause the coal industry to meet the same fate as Osama bin Laden.

“This rule is an all-out, in my opinion, decision by the EPA that we’re never going to have another coal-fired facility in the United States that’s constructed,” said president Cecil Roberts.

Maggie Fox released a statement at the time praising the rule and expressing little concern for the economic impacts on the industry.

“The coal industry must either clean up its act, or make way for cheaper, cleaner ways to power our country,” said Fox.

Udall expressed a similar sentiment at the time, saying in a statement that the rule would “reduce our dependence on the dirty fuels of the last century and curb the effects of climate change.”

According to the U.S. Department of Energy’s Energy Information Administration (EIA), coal costs about 9.5 cents per kilowatt hour of electricity generated, whereas solar thermal costs 31.2 cents per kilowatt hour. In Colorado, 68% of electricity is generated by coal power, according to the Colorado Mining Association.

Fox and Udall’s statements at the time prompted conservative blog Colorado Peak Politics to charge that the Udall family was “ecstatic about coal killing regulations.”

Udall isn’t always in alignment with his wife’s organization 100% of the time. He has pointed to support for clean coal technology, while the Climate Reality Project says clean coal is a myth.

Recently, though, Udall has sided with the Climate Reality Project on the major issues.

Soon after Senator Udall voted against an amendment to build the Keystone XL Pipeline, Fox issued a statement “applaud[ing] the senators who rejected this attempt to deepen our reliance on fossil fuels.”

Unlike Fox and the Climate Reality Project, Udall has to worry about the voters back home, and his impending re-election race in 2014.

Part of the political calculus Udall has to make involves the impact of regulations and rules on the coal industry and its employees. According to a Pennsylvania State University study in 2006, coal adds $19 billion in economic benefits to Colorado’s economy. With unemployment continuing to rise in Colorado, the industry is an important player in economic recovery.

As polls showing a potentially close re-election race for Udall, the impacts of regulations can’t be far from his mind.

A recent Public Policy Polling (PPP) poll on Colorado found Udall with a 42% approval rating, a worrying sign for an incumbent. That approval rating could actually be even lower. The New York Times has found that so far this election cycle, PPP has been showing an average of a three-point lean towards Democrats, meaning Udall’s approval could be closer to 39%. Incumbents with approval ratings below 40% are generally seen to be in perilous territory.

When it comes to the issues of energy and the environment, voters don’t always align with the Climate Reality Project stance. A new Washington Post/ABC national poll released earlier this week found that 62 percent of registered voters favor approval of the Keystone pipeline. On the ever important topic of jobs, 82 percent of registered voters said the pipeline would create “a significant number of jobs.”

That Senator Udall is siding with an environmental group on major issues is not necessarily surprising, as he has long been a favorite of the environmental lobby.

According to OpenSecrets.org, the largest single contributor to Senator Udall’s U.S. Senate campaigns has been the League of Conservation Voters, a national environmental political organization, which has given his campaigns $69,129 since 2007.

That didn’t seem to matter to Colorado voters in 2008 when Udall trounced former Congressman Bob Schaffer 53-43, nearly the same margin by which Barack Obama defeated John McCain.

But as has been the case with many so-called swing states, the political ground in Colorado has shifted since 2008, with support for Mr. Obama eroding as voters have responded unfavorably to much of the White House agenda, particularly big ticket items like the 2009 stimulus and ObamaCare.

While Udall isn’t on the ballot this year, it remains to be seen whether or not his reliable support for the environmental lobby and his marriage to one of its most prominent and outspoken advocates will help him or hurt him with Colorado voters.

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