The Keys to Congress – What’s at Stake in the 2020 Elections
By Rich Nolan, National Mining Association
If the 2016 election taught us nothing, 2020 has certainly given credence to the saying that those who have knowledge don’t predict, and those who predict don’t have knowledge. With so much in flux that will either directly or indirectly impact voter sentiment – the state of the economy and unemployment, trajectory of the coronavirus and status of a vaccine, direction of law enforcement reform – any attempt to forecast would be meaningless, other than to say the classic election year issues such as energy, immigration and health care have taken a back seat to 2020’s new world issues. But some broad-brush observations can be made around what’s at stake for all of us in the mining industry.
This presidential race is unique in that it will now not only be defined by the economy, but the economy during COVID and, more specifically, the federal government and the president’s response to the pandemic. Every week and nearly every day will be driven by yet another story that provides a flood of effects on the campaign. And finally it will be affected by voter enthusiasm for their candidate.
Former vice president Joe Biden has pledged net carbon neutrality for the U.S. by 2050 with an emissions-free electricity grid by 2035. His $2 trillion plan will require new regulation of all types of emitting sectors and expanded federal funding for a clean energy future. But when a campaign pledge turns from idea to implementation, he may find a less than welcome reception from voters. Polling conducted by Morning Consult for the National Mining Association (NMA) this July found 56 percent of Americans say they are unwilling to pay more in their electricity costs to support such a transition.
Beyond the presidential race, those inclined to read tea leaves will point to Senate races in states like Alabama, Arizona, Colorado, Georgia, Iowa, Maine, Montana and North Carolina as the keys to a power shift in Washington. If the Senate flips, there are pieces of legislation to be expected as priorities on the Democrats’ agenda.
Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) has signaled that climate change legislation will be an early mover in a Democrat-controlled Senate. That would address automobile emissions, emissions from utilities further affecting coal use and greenhouse gas emissions from a variety of energy-related infrastructure. It could take shape in a single bill, which has not proven to be a successful strategy, or climate pieces could be included in multiple pieces of legislation. However, the potential inclusion of carbon capture under the clean energy umbrella is worth watching.
In a nod towards moderates, the Biden campaign and Democrats’ “Select Committee on the Climate Crisis” have both recently embraced the necessity of carbon capture and storage technology to achieving globally replicable emissions reductions.
But details of proposals aside, the political calculus of moving climate legislation remains a steep climb. It will take 60 votes to get there and, given the slim margins that will continue to persist post-election, some of those votes would need to come from coalstate senators like Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV). Some Democrats are suggesting that they could move to eliminate the filibuster, allowing for a simple Democratic majority to get this done, but there are questions around the feasibility of such a bold step.
Specific to our issues, we currently have a solid piece of compromise legislation from Senators John Barrasso and Mike Enzi (both R-Wyo.) on abandoned mine lands and the extension but reduction of that fee. However, a Democratic Senate would make bringing that over the finish line much more difficult. Similarly, a long-term extension of the Black Lung Excise Tax becomes more likely as does an extension of the market-distorting wind Production Tax Credit, currently scheduled to expire for facilities beginning construction after December 31, 2020.
While the current administration continues its regulatory reforms, regulations since about mid-May would be subject to the Congressional Review Act (CRA), potentially impacting progress made on reforms such as the latest regulation implementing the National Environment Policy Act and Clean Water Act 401 certification regulations.
Opportunities for Bipartisan Cooperation
Despite the challenges that may lie ahead for some of the common sense regulatory reforms that have been quite positive for our industry, it’s important to remember that no matter who is in office, the U.S. likes to lead.
Our political leaders take great pride in pointing to our research and development into new technologies that will help the world use resources in the cleanest and most efficient ways. The U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Coal FIRST (Flexible, Innovative, Resilient, Small and Transformational) initiative for near zero emissions coal plants is important. This work complements ongoing efforts to accelerate the development and deployment of carbon capture, utilization and storage (CCUS) technology – innovative work that should continue regardless of which party is in power.
A number of technology-focused pieces of legislation, including the Utilizing Significant Emissions with Innovative Technologies (USE IT) Act, the Enhancing Fossil Fuel Energy Carbon Technology (EFFECT) Act, and the Creating Opportunities And Leveraging Technologies for Coal Carbon (COAL TeCC) Act, are worth watching. All aim to double down on the development and deployment of advanced coal technologies, CCUS and innovative uses for the nation’s vast coal reserves.
Regardless of who prevails in the next election, our elected officials would be wise to consider several factors.
Coal remains the world’s leading fuel for electricity generation and is used to produce more than 75 percent of the world’s steel. If the U.S. is to truly be considered a leader in tackling the global emissions challenge, U.S. leadership in advancing CCUS and other essential coal technologies must be a priority.
Americans – and American businesses – are hurting. States with a higher percentage of coal generation and a diverse mix of dispatchable fuels have some of the lowest prices per kWh of electricity in the country. Turning our collective back on that affordability and reliability is something Americans who are struggling to pay their energy bills simply cannot afford.
Officials elected in November will have previously unimagined challenges ahead of them. With global supply chains shaken, an unstable oil and gas sector, and the economy reeling, the era of substituting feel-good public relations for realistic energy policy at any cost must end. Now, more than ever, we need leaders who put reliability, resilience and affordability first. Ensuring we maintain essential coal generating capacity, properly value the security and balance it brings to the grid and retake our role as a leader in energy innovation, must be priorities for either a second-term Trump administration or a Biden administration and a new Congress.
Rich Nolan is the president and CEO of National Mining Association.