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Backing Bush Pays Off for Coal Industry

Energy: Mineral is seen as key to halting power crisis. Officials also target pending regulatory rules.

March 26, 2001|From the Washington Post

WASHINGTON — In the last election, few businesses placed as big a bet on Republicans as the coal industry, which gave 88 cents out of every dollar in campaign contributions to GOP candidates or organizations. Two months into the Bush administration, that wager has begun to pay off.

President Bush has jettisoned a campaign promise to require coal-burning power plants to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide, after heeding industry warnings that such action could "kill coal." Now, industry officials who worked for last week's Environmental Protection Agency decision to revoke a Clinton administration crackdown on arsenic in drinking water are taking aim at more than two dozen pending rules regulating substances from coal mine dust and ozone to diesel particulates.

In the GOP-controlled Congress, lobbyists for coal companies, railroads and electric utilities are mobilizing behind tax credits, subsidies and regulatory exemptions for coal-burning utilities.

The emergence of coal from the political shadows is due in part to Bush's conviction that the mineral, which is used to generate half the nation's electricity, is crucial to preventing the spread of California's energy crisis.

Coal's new strength also rests on the enhanced influence, in the aftermath of last year's election, of a network of interests, such as electric utilities and railroads, that strongly oppose lessening the country's dependence on coal.

Meanwhile, coal, rail and power companies such as Peabody Holdings Inc., Burlington Northern Santa Fe and the Southern Co. provided funding last year to start Americans for Balanced Energy Choices to develop grass-roots support for coal.

"The market realities have changed, and the political dynamics have changed in Washington," said the group's president, Steve Miller, a Democrat who was Bill Clinton's campaign organizational chairman in Kentucky in 1992. "People have no idea of the environmental improvement the coal industry has made."

To get that message across, Americans for Balanced Energy Choices has set up a Web site and prepared a media advertising budget of several million dollars to finance what Miller says will be "a longtime conversation with opinion leaders across the country."

Electric utilities and their executives and employees last year gave $18.4 million to candidates and parties, of which $12.4 million went to Republicans, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a campaign research group. Southern Co., one of the nation's largest coal-burning power producers, opposes the Kyoto, Japan, protocol, under which signatory nations, including the United States, agreed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels. The Senate has never ratified the agreement.

In the House, Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas), chairman of the subcommittee with jurisdiction over clean air and energy, has vowed that legislation containing such restrictions will "never" pass through his panel.

The chief executive of the Enron Corp. energy company, Kenneth Lay, one of Bush's most generous campaign supporters, has urged the president to create a trading system for carbon as a way of limiting emissions into the atmosphere. But Lay was not given advance notice of Bush's decision ruling out mandatory carbon controls, sources said.

A spokesman said Lay was "somewhat disappointed that we don't have a process in place to deal with what he thinks is going to be a significant issue."

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