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

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.


On a recent morning, U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver faces a small army of men wearing bright-orange T-shirts in the hall of Laborers’ International Union of North America Local 264, near Troost and 87th Street.

The Missouri congressman stands behind a lectern pasted with the message “Save Energy, Create Jobs.” His announcement links two different crises: the dangerous effects of global warming and the dire unemployment rate in the urban core.

“This is a time we have to concentrate on jobs,” he says. “And one of the areas in which we can move and move quickly is the whole area of energy. An entire new industry can be created right now in regard to how we face this energy crisis.”

Last year, the federal American Recovery and Reinvestment Act sent states several billion dollars to put people to work making low-income homes more energy-efficient. Missouri got $128 million. The men in the orange shirts got jobs.

Cleaver thinks there’s a way to maintain that momentum: a federal clean-energy bill. Last summer, the U.S. House of Representatives battled over energy policy and passed a sweeping energy bill by a razor-thin margin, 219-212. The bill ripped open an ideological rift; many Republicans — and Democrats — balked at the idea of cap and trade. Though it deals with the problem in a free-market setting, allowing companies to make choices about how they address their pollution, think tanks and energy-industry groups howled that it would cripple the economy.

Cleaver acknowledges that Missouri is at a disadvantage. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, more than 81 percent of the state’s electricity in 2009 came from coal-fired power plants. Residents of the Show-Me State aren’t in a position to pay for a huge energy overhaul, either. The U.S. Census Bureau reported in 2008 that Missourians took home 11 percent less income than the national average. “We have some unique problems that are not prevalent on the East and West Coast in regard to energy and coal usage, but we are going to make sure we reduce the economic pain the Midwest will experience,” Cleaver says. “We’re going to have to help people along the way, and we’ve taken steps to do that.”

To protect consumers from painful increases in utility bills, ACES allows coal-dependent utilities plenty of room to pollute for free in the first decade. The catch: Those utilities must use their freebies to keep costs manageable for customers. At the start, Missouri utilities get 60 percent of their permits for free. ACES, Cleaver points out, would also bump up subsidies for states’ low-income heating assistance.

“I have to pay a utility bill here, as well,” Cleaver says. “I’m concerned about any increase in cost.” He pauses for a moment, then rephrases the end of the sentence: “Any mammoth increase in cost.”

Right now, Missourians actually pay 20 percent less for their electricity than the national average, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. And, according to a study from the Missouri Energy Development Association, the cost increase under ACES likely wouldn’t be mammoth. The report from Missouri utilities takes into account the state’s allowances. Then it predicts different price tags for carbon permits. On the low end, it speculates, a permit for a ton of carbon might cost $12; on the high end, it could be as much as $50. If carbon costs stay in the middle — say, $25 — bills would increase by $18 per month for Missouri households by 2020.


Glancing up as union workers start to filter out of the meeting hall, Cleaver suggests that the financial blow could be softened by a flood of new jobs in a clean-energy economy. A 2009 report from the University of California-Berkeley and Yale University showed that Missouri could see as many as 29,000 new jobs by 2020 — on top of the normal growth expected over the next decade. “I think it’s critically important to the future of this nation and, to some degree, the future of the world,” Cleaver says of ACES.

Now, he adds, the bill is languishing in the Senate. And the clock is ticking.

“If we don’t pass a bill before the end of December, it means we have to go through the process again,” he says. “New legislation will have to be introduced. All we can say is that we hope the American public will put pressure on the Senate.”

A week after McCaskill meets with business owners in Harrisonville, a group of 20 people meet up outside the senator’s office in Westport. One carries a small video camera; another has a 4-inch-thick stack of letters in his hand. Some of them have printed off fact sheets to leave with the senator’s staff.

Repower America is the engine of this citizen lobbying crew. Its only goal: Get Congress to pass a strong climate bill, like ACES. “We knew the Senate would be the big fight,” says Gretchen Wieland, communications director for the Missouri chapter. So the group is targeting its attack by sticking to states with senators whose support could be vital.

Every week, Repower America shepherds a different group of Kansas City residents to McCaskill’s office to prove that Missouri citizens want McCaskill to support a climate bill in the Senate. On this day, the group presses, shoulder to shoulder, into the conference room. Among the more than 20 visitors are a young woman who works at Whole Foods, a retiree from the oil sector, and a man with a solar-power business. They all have the same message. “We need to get off dirty, filthy coal,” a woman near the door says.

The staffer listens, writes names and makes bullet points in a notebook. She says little, but the gathered group knows the senator’s stance is complicated.

Over the past two years, McCaskill has joined a group of 9 other senators, who have come to be known as the coal-state Democrats. In June 2008, as the fight over energy policy started, they sent a letter with concerns about cap and trade to the Senate leadership. “A federal cap-and-trade program is the most significant endeavor undertaken by Congress in over 70 years,” they wrote to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.

In December 2008, McCaskill told constituents at a free “Kitchen Table Talk” in Kansas City that she supported putting a price on carbon. “I’m for cap and trade,” she said. “The devil’s in the details.”

But she didn’t like the details of the bill that passed in the House six months later. On June 27, the morning after the House vote, McCaskill raised environmentalists’ eyebrows with a Twitter post heard around the country: “I hope we can fix cap and trade so it doesn’t unfairly punish businesses and families in coal-dependent states like Missouri.”

That concern has become McCaskill’s calling card on the subject.

In July, the senator told conservative Missouri talk-show host Mike Ferguson that she might anger her liberal friends, but a climate bill like the hard-fought one in the House would never fly in the Senate. “We need to be a leader in the world, but we don’t want to be a sucker,” she said of carbon pricing. “And if we go too far with this, all we’re going to do is chase more jobs to China and India, where they’ve been putting up coal-fired plants every 10 minutes.”


In September, the Senate took another stab at an energy bill. By then, campaign contributions had started to roll in. In the final three and a half months of 2009, McCaskill received more than $17,000 from energy companies. Peabody Energy, a coal company headquartered in St. Louis, was especially generous, donating $3,400 to the senator in late 2009. The climate measure from Sens. John Kerry and Barbara Boxer didn’t make much headway.

By the end of last year, McCaskill told reporters that her fellow senators didn’t have the stomach for another unsettling issue. “I don’t think anyone’s excited about doing another really, really big thing that’s really, really hard that makes everybody mad,” McCaskill told reporters. “Climate fits that category.”

But the Missouri senator isn’t keen on the Environmental Protection Agency dealing with the issue, either. In 2007, the Supreme Court ruled that carbon dioxide was, indeed, a pollutant that could be regulated by the EPA. In February of this year, the coal-state Democrats sent a letter to the head of the EPA. “We write with serious economic and energy security concerns related to the potential regulation of greenhouse gases from stationary sources. Ill-timed or imprudent regulation of greenhouse gases may squander critical opportunities for our nation, impeding the investment necessary to create jobs,” they warned.

The residents crammed into McCaskill’s Westport office insist that timing is critical.

“We don’t have time to say we’ll do it three, four years from now,” one woman says of the passage of an energy bill.

“It can’t wait,” another agrees.

“The House has passed a bill. The president said he would sign it,” a third adds. “We need to do it now.”

There’s another group targeting McCaskill: the American Council for Affordable and Reliable Energy.

The group’s founder, Mike Carey, is the president of the Ohio Coal Association. The group’s goal: Kill cap-and-trade legislation. To influence the choices of key senators, ACARE launched an eight-state billboard campaign.

Last month, billboards popped up across Missouri’s 3rd Congressional District, urging McCaskill to reject cap and trade. “Senator McCaskill,” the sign warns next to an imposing image of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, “Don’t be a Pelosi puppet.”

McCaskill tells The Pitch that she doesn’t like Missouri’s reliance on dirty energy.

“I’m no fan of coal,” she says. “I hate coal.”

But she’s not exactly a cheerleader for cap and trade, either. “I’m not adamantly opposed to putting a price on carbon,” she says. “We just have to be very careful that we are not doing unintended consequences…. I think creating a new derivative market right now, when we don’t know how to regulate the one we got, is not the greatest idea.”

But cap and trade has a successful, if rarely discussed, track record in this country. In the 1980s, the sulfur and nitrogen compounds streaming out of coal-fired power plants turned into acid rain that corroded buildings and killed forests in the nation’s Northeast. When the federal Clean Air Act came up for review in 1990, Democrats and Republicans supported a new concept, a way to reduce pollution in a free-market manner. The Acid Rain Program used a cap-and-trade mechanism to phase out chemicals each year, forcing utilities to clean up their stacks.

The cap-and-trade program was the first of its kind in the country — and in the world. And even Republicans liked it. The sweeping air-pollution bill sailed through the U.S. Senate by an 89-11 margin. Both of Missouri’s Republican senators at the time, Kit Bond and John Danforth, voted for it. “It strikes a balance between the clear and widely accepted need to clean up our air versus the economic costs,” Bond said on the Senate floor.


And it worked. By 2006, though power plants were burning 40 percent more fossil fuels (including natural gas), the pollutants in acid rain had plunged 40 percent below the 1990 level. In Missouri, by 2009, cap and trade had cut sulfur dioxide nearly 70 percent and nitrogen oxides by more than 72 percent.

Putting a lid on carbon is proving more difficult. There are more polluters to police. There’s no technology, like the scrubbers that strain out sulfur and nitrogen, to scour coal-fired power plants of carbon-dioxide emissions.

Still, Chuck Caisley, a Kansas City Power & Light spokesman, says the local utility isn’t opposed to a cap-and-trade system. The company supports the goals of the controversial House bill. The trouble, Caisley says, is the timing. If ramping up to that final goal were just a little slower, KCP&L could make it work without much strain on consumers. “We have some of the most competitive, lowest rates in the U.S., and there’s no reason that has to change just because carbon cap and trade comes in, as long as there’s an orderly transition,” he says.

Missourians have already shown their support for a transition to clean energy. In 2008, nearly 1.8 million voters supported Proposition C, a ballot initiative that requires investor-owned utilities, including KCP&L, to get 15 percent of their energy from clean sources by 2021. The measure passed with two-thirds of the vote.

P.J. Wilson, director of Renew Missouri, which pushed Prop C, says the Show-Me State has options besides coal. “Just by putting wind turbines up within 30 miles of existing transmission lines, there’s enough wind in Missouri to power 110 percent of our electricity needs,” he says. The state’s solar resource isn’t all that different than blistering Arizona, he adds. And there’s an even easier option: conservation. Right now, even states such as Arizona and Florida, where residents crank their air conditioners nearly year-round, do more to save energy than Missouri, which was ranked 45th for conservation in 2008 by the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy.

“It’s not a scientific question,” Wilson says of climate change. “It’s happening. It’s really urgent and really alarming. We’re way beyond whether our electricity bills are going to go up 20 percent or not. To ask, is it too expensive, I think, is the wrong question.”

But that’s the question that could swing McCaskill’s vote.

After the Harrisonville stop, McCaskill boards her plane again for a flight to Kansas City.

In a cavernous warehouse, businessmen in suits and laborers with dirty towels in their pockets wait for the senator to arrive at the production plant for Smith Electric Vehicles. When she takes the podium, McCaskill announces a $32 million grant for the manufacturer of electric, pollution-free delivery trucks. This kind of battery technology will create jobs, McCaskill says, beaming.

“There was great competition for these monies,” she tells the crowd. “Other companies are stretching and pushing, trying to get to that new technology that can change the way we view transportation and the production of energy in this country.”

Back in Washington, D.C., while McCaskill is on spring break, her staff meets with aides to Sens. Kerry and Joseph Lieberman. They, along with Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, continue to work on a climate bill that could change the way the United States produces energy.


McCaskill is standing back for now. She isn’t taking a definitive stand until she reads the Senate measure. She believes that global warming is a threat but she won’t be a hard-liner on reducing emissions by 80 percent by 2050. “I’m listening to all sides on this,” she tells The Pitch. “Hopefully we’ll come up with an approach that is reasonable and helpful to the environment and manufacturing and national security but doesn’t punish Missouri unfairly.”

After her announcement at Smith Electric, McCaskill tours the manufacturing plant, listening as company officials sell her their green vision.

But there’s a portion of this production line that’s hidden from view.

No matter how advanced their batteries are, the electric vehicles still release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. When the trucks return to the warehouse at the end of the day, they plug in to recharge. At least for now, that juice is fueling the global-warming fire.

On the other end of that outlet is a coal-fired power plant.

*Editor’s note: A reference to a power plant in Peculiar as a coal-burning facility was incorrect and has been removed from the online version of this story.

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