Environmentalists braved a potentially hostile reception in West Virginia Friday to float the idea that a new tax could be the answer to the state's ailing economy.
The World Resources Institute, a global band of environmental researchers, addressed West Virginia University's energy conference on Friday and published op-eds in regional newspapers, in addition to releasing a policy paper, all to show how a "carbon tax" could be the answer for the state's thousands of unemployed coal miners.
West Virginia lawmakers and many others believe the Obama administration's policies are to blame for their state's stark situation by targeting the fossil fuel industry. They tell the story about how Environmental Protection Agency chief Gina McCarthy refused to visit the state when the agency was developing its landmark climate rules, even though the rules are expected to impact coal states the most.
The idea of a carbon tax, at this point, might be perceived as a bit tone deaf. Even some conservative think tanks that studied the idea have distanced themselves from the policy. Ben Zycher, senior fellow with the conservative American Enterprise Institute, put it this way in an email in the fall: "A few of my colleagues at AEI have looked at carbon taxes in various contexts, as I have. There is sharp disagreement."
The lead author of the environmentalist group's policy paper, Noah Kaufman, argues that a nationally imposed tax on carbon dioxide emissions could generate tens of billions of dollars for ailing coal communities. A carbon tax, an alternative to EPA's steep regulations, would place a price on the carbon emissions a power plant, refiner, steel mill and other places emit. The money would go to the Treasury.
The idea is that by placing a price on emissions, businesses step up and make investments to make their operations cleaner, thus helping to reduce the threat of global warming while creating a new source of revenue for the government.
"Depending on the policy details, a carbon price could generate revenue of $100 billion to $200 billion per year," Kaufman said in a Friday op-ed in the state's Charleston Gazette. "Just a small percentage of that revenue would imply billions of dollars in resources for coal communities, and that could be a game-changer. It could be used to ensure lifetime guarantees for coal miners' pensions and health benefits, which West Virginia's senators have proposed to Congress in the Miners Protection Act."
Washington policymakers, even some Republicans, have contemplated the idea of a carbon tax as an alternative to more contentious policies like a cap-and-trade market-based approach and heavy-handed EPA rules.
Kaufman points out that the tax could be used in ways that mirror GOP strategies for helping coal country, such as those proposed in a bill called the RECLAIM Act. The bipartisan bill aims to accelerate $1 billion in available funding in the Abandoned Mine Reclamation Fund "to revitalize coal communities hardest hit by the downturn of the coal industry," according to Rep. Hal Rogers, R-Ky., chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, who introduced the measure. But the measure is far from a carbon tax.
The West Virginia energy conference began with a stark assessment of coal country. Charles Patton, president of utility Appalachian Power, said 25 percent of his company's customers can't pay their bills.
"We're witness now to the collapse of an economy," said Joyce McConnell, West Virginia University provost and academic vice president.
Their comments were immediately followed by a legal expert's presentation on the impact of the Supreme Court's Feb. 9 decision to halt the president's Clean Power Plan until all litigation has concluded. West Virginia is leading 30 states in litigation against the far-reaching climate change regulations that it argues will shut down scores of coal plants, decimating industry and raising the cost of electricity for residents.
The Clean Power Plan directs states to cut their greenhouse gas emissions a third by 2030, which the states argue represents an illegal overreach of EPA's authority. Many scientists blame the emissions for raising the temperature of the Earth, resulting in more severe weather, drought and sea-level rise.
Representatives from Democratic candidates Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton will discuss their outlook for coal country on a panel Friday afternoon, and Rep. Evan Jenkins, R-W. Va., Samuel Petsonk, a lawyer with the group Mountain State Justice, will begin the discussion by presenting summaries of the administration's "Power+ Plan" to help struggling coal communities, in addition to "the relevant proposals of the Republican presidential candidates," according to an agenda.