Senator Sherrod Brown is in a bind, one that puts the Ohio Democrat at the center of a national debate about environmental regulations and jobs.
Brown, who is up for re-election next year, is facing conflicting demands from two of his key supporters, labor unions and environmentalists.
At issue is President Barack Obama administration’s proposed regulation of emissions from coal-fired power plants, a measure that is pitting traditional Democratic groups against each other in Ohio and other coal-producing states in America’s industrial midsection.
Environmental advocates say the coal rule is a watershed proposal to limit emissions of hazardous chemicals such as mercury and arsenic. Unions are aligning themselves with parts of the power industry in opposing the regulation, warning that it would cause job losses.
“Democrats will be worried about being on the wrong end of that argument, and being accused of being anti-jobs,” Herb Asher, professor emeritus of political science at the Ohio State University, said in an interview Nov. 7.
Brown is caught in the middle. Unions are among his biggest campaign contributors. Environmentalists lauded him last year for his voting record.
So he is taking a cautious approach. He said in an interview Nov. 7 that he is waiting for the Environmental Protection Agency to issue its final rules next month before taking a position. He said that will allow him to consult with scientists and other experts before making a decision.
“Public health is not exclusive of good economic growth,” Brown said. “You want workers to be healthy. You want children and seniors to be healthy, and that’s why public health is so important.”
The Senate may put Brown in the position of casting a vote soon. Republican Dan Coats of Indiana and Democrat Joe Manchin of West Virginia introduced Senate legislation today that would delay the EPA’s coal regulations until 2017, a measure that’s aimed at attracting a bipartisan group of lawmakers such as Brown.
Environmental groups nationally are urging immediate action to cap coal-burning power plant emissions. The EPA issued its proposal earlier this year, estimating it would cost the power industry $10.9 billion in 2015, the year the rule would take effect. It is the most-expensive regulation now under consideration by Obama.
Costs and Benefits
The EPA says the rule would save lives and create 9,000 more jobs than would be lost, as power plants invest billions of dollars to install pollution scrubbing systems or build cleaner natural gas plants. It estimates the regulation could prevent 17,000 premature deaths from toxic emissions, and says mercury and arsenic can cause nerve damage or cancer.
Bob Perciasepe, the deputy administrator of the EPA, said during a congressional hearing on Nov. 1 that the “vast majority” of the more than 900,000 public comments submitted to federal officials support the rule.
“There are costs associated with new pollution controls, but there are benefits as well,” Nolan Moser, director of energy and air programs for The Ohio Environmental Council in Columbus, said in an interview Nov. 7. Moser said he has made that pitch to Brown, an argument that hasn’t yet been persuasive.
The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and other unions are siding with Columbus, Ohio-based American Electric Power Co. and Atlanta-based Southern Co., the two largest coal-fired power producers.
The unions and the power companies say that Obama’s regulation is going to result in plant closings, job losses and higher power costs in industrial states such as Michigan, West Virginia and Pennsylvania.
In each of those states, the incumbent Democratic senator facing re-election next year already has voted to delay other EPA regulations on greenhouse gas emissions from power plants.
“In the end, the Democrats from coal-producing areas have to do a tap dance,” Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics in Charlottesville, said in a telephone interview Nov. 4.
Nowhere is the dilemma more on display than in Ohio, the state with the most sulfur dioxide pollution from coal plants, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
AEP has announced that if the EPA rule goes forward it will mean the closing of parts or all of 11 power plants, eliminating as many as 600 jobs. The company has said it will need to spend as much as $8 billion to upgrade plants.
At its 50-year-old plant in Conesville, Ohio, 70 miles northeast of Columbus, AEP already has installed scrubber equipment to clean the emissions from three of its four units.
It’s an elaborate process. As a first line of cleaning, the exhaust is injected with ammonia gas and taken through a catalytic system to pull out the nitrogen oxide. Then it’s blown into a limestone slurry, which can pull up to 99 percent of the sulfur dioxide out as well.
The oldest of the four existing units at Conesville would need to be shut if the rule is approved, the company says. AEP says it isn’t asking that the EPA’s rules be stopped, only delayed two to three years so that it can plan for the phaseout of units such as that in Conesville.
“The timetable just does not make sense,” Nick Akins, the incoming chief executive officer of AEP, said in an interview Nov. 2. “It’s not a good time in the economy to just truncate and eliminate these units.”
American Electric backed a measure that cleared the House of Representatives on Sept. 23 that would prohibit the EPA from issuing the so-called air toxics rule, and nullify a separate EPA rule that would limit sulfur dioxide and hydrogen oxide pollution from power plants in 27 states, including Ohio.
Its political action committee and employees have donated $42,350 to Brown’s re-election campaign, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a Washington-based research group. It’s also enlisted a key ally to help bolster its cause.
Just as AEP argues, the electrical workers union says the EPA should extend the deadline for meeting the pollution caps from 2015, said Jim Hunter, director of the union’s utility department in Washington.
“We’re looking at this from the jobs perspective,” Hunter said. “Brown is very concerned about jobs and jobs in Ohio.”
The electrical workers’ union has been the fifth-highest contributor to Brown, giving him $89,100 over his entire congressional career, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
The American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, which represents AEP, Southern and coal producers such as Arch Coal Inc., is sponsoring radio and newspaper advertisements through a state group, complaining about EPA’s “regulation rodeo.” The Ohio ad is part of a $35 million national campaign.
“The last thing we need is EPA regulation that would slam Ohio families and businesses with higher energy costs, bucking even more of us from good-paying jobs,” said the statewide radio ad.
The League of Conservation Voters, which gave Brown a perfect rating in 2010 and supports the rule, isn’t sitting back.
It began advertising campaigns against House Democrats such as Jason Altmire of Pennsylvania, who voted against the EPA in recent weeks. Environment Ohio, based in Columbus, ran television advertisements against House Republican Steve Stivers, showing a baby being fed a heaping teaspoon of arsenic and saying his votes against the EPA would send more toxins to children.
Faced with that dilemma, Brown said he’s not afraid to take a stand. “That’s what my job is, to make decisions,” he said.
Meanwhile, the EPA is shaping up to be an issue in next year’s election campaign.
Brown is siding with a “fringe environmental position on these EPA regulations,” Josh Mandel, the Republican Ohio treasurer who has formed a campaign committee to challenge Brown next year, said in an interview Nov. 4.
“It’s just about the worst time that the federal EPA and politicians in Washington to be talking about adding costs on manufacturing companies in Ohio,” Mandel said.