Coal and Politics

Update: now cross-posted at It’s Getting Hot in Here.

At Grist Magazine, they like to refer to coal as the Enemy of the Human Race. And, while that’s a bit of a rhetorical flourish, it’s true that coal is unavoidably one of the dirtiest ways possible to produce energy. If you’re interested in finding out more about the entire process of using coal for energy, I encourage you to read Big Coal, by Jeff Goodell.

But what I want to write about today is inspired by a Huffington Post article by Jesse Jenkins, of The Breakthrough Institute and It’s Getting Hot in Here. I’m generally pretty skeptical of Shellenberger & Nordhaus’ thinktank, but I met Jesse at Powershift, and this article is pretty good. Its overall message is the same as everything out of their thinktank; in order to be successful, environmental messages need to be framed around things that people care about more, like jobs and the economy. Specifically, the article runs down what it dubs the “Technology Fifteen”, i.e. fifteen “moderate” senators from the interior of the country who have banded together to have a voice on climate issues.

So, I thought I’d look a little further into specifically the geography of coal as it relates to politics. I put up a Google Docs spreadsheet with my data. All my data’s from the Energy Information Administration, the government office whose job it is to make public this sort of stuff.

Essentially, I ranked all the states by 1. Percentage of energy supply that comes from coal, 2. Number of people in the state employed by the coal industry, and 3. Coal production. Theoretically, members of congress from these states would be less inclined to support legislation aimed to breaking America’s coal addiction. This metric is likely even a more significant factor than their ideology. Anyways, here is the list of states:

  1. West Virginia
  2. Wyoming
  3. Kentucky
  4. Pennsylvania
  5. Virginia
  6. Illinois
  7. Texas
  8. Indiana
  9. North Dakota
  10. Montana
  11. Utah
  12. Colorado
  13. Alabama
  14. New Mexico
  15. Ohio

So which senators represent these states who might be of interest? Well, a few of the states are represented by very conservative senators, and we can be pretty sure how they’ll vote on energy legislation already. Some others have a League of Conservation score of 100% for 2008, so we can be fairly sure that they will vote well. And what do you know, taking out those two bunches leaves us with just fifteen senators. Here they are, starting with those from the coal-iest state, West Virginia:

  1. Byrd (D)
  2. Rockefeller (D)
  3. Dorgan (D)
  4. Conrad (D)
  5. Specter (R)
  6. Webb (D)
  7. Warner (D)
  8. Burris (D)
  9. Lugar (R)
  10. Bayh (D)
  11. Udall (D)
  12. Bennet (D)
  13. Udall (D)
  14. Voinovich (R)
  15. Brown (D)

Burris and Bennet have not heald a seat in congress before, so LCV has no rankings for them. Otherwise, these senators are ranked by coal-iness and then by LCV ranking.

So what does this mean? Well, Obama and Senate Democrats are looking for moderate Republicans to vote with them in order to break filibusters. Voinovich, Lugar, and Specter are identified by Nate Silver as in the top five prospects for this, along with the two Maine senators. I would suggest that the three of them might be less likely to flip on anti-coal legislation than they might be otherwise.

On the other side, Nate recognizes Dorgan, Conrad, Baucus, Tester, Byrd, and Webb as potential problems for Obama, but not as big problems as four conservative Democrats from non-coal states.

So, we’ll see. Keep an eye on these senators when energy bills come to the senate.

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