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McConnell Saved Big Money For Big Coal — And Let Us Pay Instead

Reprinted with permission from DCReport

Kentucky coal miners—along with the rest of us—will be paying the price to keep the government running next year. And we can thank Kentucky’s senior senator, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, for the sellout.

Buried in the giant $1.4 trillion government spending package that McConnell ushered through the Senate last week was a relatively modest $15 billion, 30-year payout to sustain the Black Lung Disability Trust Fund—a boon to the majority leader’s home state coal miners.  As many as one in five coal miners suffer from black lung.

But here’s the kicker: What McConnell had removed from the must-pass funding legislation. In order to keep the government running, McConnell threw out provisions that would have forced coal companies to commit to higher payments toward the health-care costs of their employees and retirees, nixing requirements to extend the commitment period and modestly increase the tax on coal mining companies that are supposed to support the trust fund.

McConnell threw out provisions that would have forced coal companies to commit to higher payments toward the health-care costs of their employees and retirees.

In short, McConnell let the coal industry skip out and leave the $15 billion black lung tab for everyone else to pay.

The move was mind-boggling, considering McConnell is already under scrutiny and criticism for partnering with a previously sanctioned Russian businessman, Oleg Deripaska, who McConnell voted to de-sanction. Deripaska, who owns Rusal, a Russian-owned coal company, joined McConnell in a project that his home state of Kentucky voted in 2017 to invest $15M of taxpayer money.

‘A Handout’

“This is a handout. This is a giveaway,” Jim Waters of the Bluegrass Institute for Public Policy Solutions, told WaPo in August. Waters reasoned that judgment might have been clouded by the possible thousands of area jobs that could be added. “I think the excitement of that overrode some of the due diligence.”

McConnell’s strange allegiances to influences domestic and foreign have clearly reached the grassroots level. As Mikaela Curry, a community organizer and member of Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, wrote in an op-ed in the Courier-Journal, Feb. 22, entitled, “Mitch McConnell is silent on coal while Kentucky miners suffer and die”:  “When McConnell speaks up for coal, it always seems to align with the people profiting in the fossil fuel industry and not the hard-working people he is supposed to represent.”

Disabled Miners

Most poignant are the call outs to McConnell from those suffering physically as well as financially from his unwillingness to make the coal companies own up to their responsibility to their current and retired workers and their families. Patty Amburgey, now secretary of the local black lung association in Letcher County, is the widow of a coal miner who died of Black Lung Disease after leaving mining, “blind, unable to feel his legs or arms, and constantly short of breath,” according to his obit.

“I’m asking [Mr. McConnell] to please remember that East Kentucky is a mining area,” his widow wrote in Kentuckians for the Commonwealth. “And we do have a lot of miners and the election is coming up. I want him to understand that.” Obviously, Mr. McConnell is betting his Appropriations Bill will heal these sores and smooth his way to re-election.

But that may not be so easy in practice. Instead of increasing the excise tax rate in effect in 2018, which sunset on Jan. 1, 2019, Congress failed to act, which allowed the tax for coal companies to reset to 1985 rates, lowering contributions by 55 percent (from $1.10 per ton of coal from subsurface mines to $.50 and from $0.55 per ton for coal from surface mines to just $0.25), which many in Congress had contested.

Companies Protected

After congressional wrangling, the 2020 tax rate will revert to 2018 rates of $1.10 and $0.55 per ton, respectively. But those prices will sunset again on Dec. 31, 2020, and if not renewed will revert to the 1978 rate of $0.50 and $0.25 per ton. The companies also are protected from market price rises by a ceiling cap on the tax of 4.4 percent of its coal selling price.

In June, the House Ways and Means Committee approved a 10-year extension as part of a broader package. Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA) proposed the rate be renewed at a higher rate through 2029. He and co-sponsors want to see the Trust Fund fully funded with no sunsets.

While Moscow Mitch steers millions toward business ventures with oligarchs, many in Appalachia want lawmakers to realize that a hike in the excise tax of $0.14 per ton for surface-mined coal and $0.28 per ton for underground-mined coal would eliminate the debt in the Fund completely by 2050, according to the General Accounting Office.

Photo credit: Gage Skidmore

Trump Falsely Claims Wind Turbines ‘Spew’ Pollution

Donald Trump continued his war against renewable energy this weekend, telling a crowd of supporters at a rally that wind turbines were the real culprit behind climate change.

At a Saturday speech to right-wing students in Florida, Trump — who has called climate change a Chinese hoax — delivered a stream-of-consciousness assault on wind energy.

“I never understood wind,” Trump told the crowd. “I know windmills very much, I have studied it better than anybody. I know it is very expensive. They are made in China and Germany mostly, very few made here, almost none, but they are manufactured, tremendous — if you are into this — tremendous fumes and gases are spewing into the atmosphere. You know we have a world, right?”

“So the world is tiny compared to the universe,” Trump continued. “So tremendous, tremendous amount of fumes and everything. You talk about the carbon footprint, fumes are spewing into the air, right spewing, whether it is China or Germany, is going into the air.”

As The Hill noted Sunday, Trump is correct that the manufacture of wind turbines — like most things — does cause some carbon emission. But wind farm-generated electricity saved about 200 million tons of carbon pollution in 2018 and studies have found a wind project typically saves more than its carbon footprint in the first six months.

Trump, by comparison, has done little to reduce his own carbon dioxide emissions, flying in private planes, acquiring massive mansions, and erecting large golf resorts.

Trump has long objected to wind energy and the way wind turbines spoil his view. Earlier this year he was forced to pay 225,000 pounds sterling — a little less than $300,000 — to Scotland’s government after mounting a failed crusade to block offshore turbines near his Balmedie golf resort.

“I want to see the ocean, I do not want to see windmills,” he said in 2006 before launching the multi-year legal battle.

In 2012 Trump falsely told the tourism committee of the Scottish National Parliament that those turbines would “lead to the almost total destruction of Scotland’s tourism industry.”

Trump has claimed without evidence that wind turbines are dangerous, cause cancer, and bring blackouts. His administration has pushed for significant cuts in federal funding for renewable energy, while pushing to let coal plants spew more toxic waste.

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.

What Sanders And Warren Get Wrong About Fossil Fuels

The two most left-leaning presidential candidates, Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, seem to think that a ban on fracking would help solve the climate crisis. Hydraulic fracturing is a process that has enabled a revolution in the U.S. production of oil and especially natural gas.

Natural gas emits half as much of the planet-warming gas carbon dioxide as does coal. The newfound abundance of natural gas has lowered its price, nearly putting coal out of business. In fact, there’s now a glut of natural gas that has sliced its price nearly in half from a year ago. As a result, gas producers are closing drilling rigs and filing for bankruptcy.

Another negative for natural gas is that power companies are increasingly turning to wind and solar energy, whose prices are rapidly tumbling. Morgan Stanley predicts that the demand for natural gas will fall 13 percent during the coming decade as utilities move to wind and solar power. A carbon tax could accelerate that switch to renewables, the investment bankers add.

Really, why are these candidates trying to shut down an industry that has already started to shut itself down? There are environmental reasons, understood. Fracking worsens water and air pollution in drilling communities. And natural gas is still a fossil fuel.

But Bill Gates offers a more effective approach to halting the rise in temperatures than going after specific industries. Rather than boycott fossil fuel stocks, which the Microsoft multibillionaire regards as a waste of time, investors should put their money into green technologies. Rich entrepreneurs are already doing that for the good of the environment but also for their bottom lines.

Renewable energy sources have become competitive with fossil fuels because new technology is making them cheaper. For example, petroleum accounts for nearly half of U.S. energy-related carbon emissions, but the ascent of electric cars and trucks threatens to slash its use.

Saudi Aramco produces about 10 percent of the world’s oil. The Saudis have been selling off the company to investors with the argument that as demand for oil declines, Aramco will survive because its oil is cheap to get at and relatively clean next to that of its competitors.

There are numerous ways to wager that climate-friendly investments will pay off handsomely. Elon Musk famously turned the electric car into a mass-market product. He’s also invested billions in turning out batteries for electric cars but also to store energy for times when the wind isn’t blowing or the sun not shining.

In 2008, Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway put $232 million in BYD, a maker of rechargeable batteries. The investment is now valued at over $1.5 billion.

Colorado mogul Philip Anschutz expects work to start next year on his TransWest Express, a high-voltage transmission line that will bring wind power from Wyoming to California. Gates himself has poured at least $1 billion into companies like Carbon Engineering, whose mission is to convert carbon dioxides in the air to fuel.

Then there’s Bill Joy, a co-founder of Sun Microsystems. He boasts that his technology investments could do away with half of all greenhouse gas emissions. Good luck to him.

There is political work to do in building incentives to move into a clean-energy economy. Billionaire Democrat Michael Bloomberg has put $500 million into Beyond Carbon, a nonprofit that encourages lobbyists and politicians to build a green agenda at the state and local level.

Given these developments, why would Warren or Sanders or any other politician want to be held responsible, fairly or unfairly, for forcing layoffs in industries already under stress? Better to concentrate on replacements for dirty energy and then boast of the jobs being created.

Follow Froma Harrop on Twitter @FromaHarrop. She can be reached at fharrop@gmail.com. To find out more about Froma Harrop and read features by other Creators writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Web page at www.creators.com.