Sen. Claire McCaskill may not like coal, but she's having a hard time saying no to it 

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Sen. Claire McCaskill is stuck between a rock and a hard place.

A dirty rock — coal — makes Missouri a major culprit in global warming.

But hard times make it tough to tell residents that they've got to give up their dirt-cheap energy prices.

The dilemma confronts McCaskill on a recent Wednesday morning in Harrisonville.* It's the first week of the junior senator's congressional spring recess, and she wants to escape the television cameras.

McCaskill is friendly but efficient as she greets a dozen Cass County mayors and entrepreneurs waiting in a beige room at the Harrisonville Community Center. When she sits down, she's blunt about her intentions. She wants to create jobs and she wants to know how small-business owners, such as those sitting around her, think she should do it. "There's so much the government should do and can do, and then there's some stuff the government shouldn't do," she says. "I'm trying to find that balance right now."

Gary Lee, a slight man with a deep voice, tells the senator that he's trying to create jobs in this still-small city 40 miles south of Kansas City. His company, Universal Asset Management, turns sorghum into energy without the emission of global-warming gases. The process is virtually unknown in the United States, he says, "but you can hardly drive down the road in Germany without seeing this type of technology."

McCaskill stops scribbling notes and listens to Lee with her head resting on one hand.

"Now, one of the reasons Europe did this is because they put a price on carbon," she says. "And that gets into a whole other area that becomes very controversial in Missouri because we're very coal-dependent. Obviously, you'd have no problem with this thing taking off like a rocket if we put a price on carbon like Europe did."

Last year, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill that does just that. The American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009 (ACES) includes a cap-and-trade program that would slash carbon-dioxide emissions by more than 80 percent by 2050. The details are complicated, but the concept is simple.

First, the government would set a ceiling on how much carbon dioxide could be released by major sources, like coal-fired power plants, each year. Any company that coughed up carbon would have to have a permit for each ton it released into the atmosphere. But the government would dole out permits only until that year's total pollution ceiling was reached. After that, a company needing more permits to pollute would have to buy them from a cleaner company. And each year, that ceiling would lower a little, making it more and more difficult — and costly — to keep releasing global-warming gases.

Every Missouri Democrat in the U.S. House voted for the bill.

If the bill had been in the Senate, McCaskill would have rejected it.

Another Harrisonville businessman hates the idea of cap and trade. He says it would ruin manufacturing companies that would be bankrupted by increased costs for energy and raw materials. He casts the issue in dire terms: "Energy policy: loading the gun."

McCaskill doesn't entirely disagree. The League of Conservation Voters notes that, since her election in 2006, McCaskill has sided with environmentalists on 81 percent of eco-related bills. But when it comes to the passage of a strong federal energy bill this year, McCaskill is a giant question mark.

"It could kill Missouri," she tells the businessmen around the Harrisonville table.

This week, on Earth Day, a trio of senators might make a last-ditch effort to introduce a climate bill, setting the stage for a fight that could rival the acrimony over health care. In that battle, McCaskill fought hard with Democrats. On energy, her stance may frustrate her friends on the left.


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