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Byrd's Late Coal Conversion

I didn't get a chance to mention this yesterday, but Robert Byrd's death definitely jumbles the political landscape for climate/energy legislation—though maybe not in the way most people would assume. For a long time, Byrd had been a staunch coal guy (it's West Virginia, after all) who was firmly opposed to doing anything about global warming. He was one of the Kyoto Protocol's biggest critics, and in 2008 he was the only Democrat who voted against even starting debate about a cap on carbon emissions.

But in the last year or so, Byrd genuinely started to change his views, as Jesse Zwick detailed in this TNR piece. He began criticizing the coal industry's habit of ripping apart Appalachia and poisoning the streams via mountaintop-removal mining. He slammed coal execs like Massey's Don Blankenship (one of the state's great Dickensian villains) for their cavalier approach to miner safety. And he realized that a retrograde approach to climate change and alternative energy was ultimately futile. West Virginia, he argued, no longer benefits from tethering itself to a dirty industry that stubbornly insists on staying mired in the 19th century. If West Virginia was ever going to thrive, the coal industry needed to evolve into something cleaner and more responsible.

And that was significant, vote-wise. Byrd was considered a likely "yes" for some sort of big comprehensive energy bill. He helped fight off Lisa Murkowski's resolution to gut the EPA's authority over greenhouse gases. It's very, very unlikely that his replacement will do any of those things. Most West Virginia politicians, after all, think like the Byrd of old—just look at Jay Rockefeller, who on many things (like health care) is one of the more liberal senators around, but on energy consistently sides with coal interests. (Rockefeller voted with Murkowski.) In West Virginia, Byrd's late about-face on coal was a rare exception—and one that may not survive him.

(Flickr photo credit: Nevada Tumbleweed)