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King Coal Comes Knocking

Most coal companies aren't exactly thrilled by the prospect of Democrats putting a cap on carbon emissions in the coming years. So that means... lobbying. Whole shovels full. In March, the day before Al Gore testified before Congress on climate change, the coal industry held a $1,000-a-head fundraiser for Virginia Democrat Rick Boucher, chair of the House subcommittee in charge of global warming legislation. And now Peabody Energy, the world's largest private coal company, has hired former House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt to "spearhead its drive to defeat efforts by Democrats to put caps on carbon emissions."

The pairing isn't as shocking as it might seem. Gephardt has never been fond of taking action on global warming. And I suspect there are more than a few Democrats aligned with industrial unionism who share his view. At the recent candidate forum held by the AFL-CIO's building trades division, I noticed that not a single candidate garnered applause for talking about global warming. When John Edwards--who seemed to get a standing ovation every time he flashed his teeth--discussed his plan to slash carbon emissions by 80 percent before 2050, the silence was stark. (No one seemed to buy his promise to replace "every single job that would be lost.")

Now, it would be foolish to try and predict this far in advance how the emissions debate will play out in Congress, but the lack of enthusiasm from groups like the AFL-CIO could be a big deal. In the past, Democrats have, in part, failed to get universal health care passed because they couldn't get labor on board. In the 1940's, during Truman's big push, unions like the UMW were already satisfied with the benefits they had won for their workers and offered only tepid support. In 1994, many labor leaders were furious at Clinton over NAFTA and didn't really get behind his health-care drive. Sometimes I wonder if climate-change legislation could suffer the same fate.

P.S. Peabody plans to have Gephardt lobby for "increased funding for 'clean coal technology.'" And it's true, federal support for clean-coal research has been lagging (see this MIT report on "The Future of Coal"). But even if scientists can get carbon sequestration to work, there are really only two ways for clean coal plants to become competitive: if the price of carbon (and hence the cost of conventional coal plants) rises thanks to a carbon tax or a cap-and-trade regime, or if the government starts doling out massive subsidies. Wonder which option Peabody has in mind.

--Bradford Plumer