MORGANTOWN, W.Va. (AP) — U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, who once expressed his disdain for a cap-and-trade bill by literally shooting it, furthered an unlikely energy alliance with Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse by hopping on a Blackhawk chopper in coal-centric West Virginia on Wednesday.
Whitehouse, a Rhode Island Democrat who has urged action on climate change in dozens of Senate floor speeches, flew out to tour coal and energy resources in Manchin's home state Wednesday. It's the same kind of energy production targeted by President Barack Obama's environmental agency, which is pushing to cut carbon emissions from coal-fired power plants and stem climate change.
Manchin, likely the Senate's most conservative Democrat, is pushing back against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on the proposal. Coal advocates fear it could further cripple Appalachia's already-dwindling fossil fuel industry. Whitehouse, who has seen the effects of climate change in his coastal state, said he wouldn't change anything with the EPA push at this point.
"For us, looking at coal as a fuel, it's pretty much all downside," Whitehouse said.
Instead of belaboring the divide, the pair is starting off with simple acknowledgements.
Manchin recognizes people are contributing to global warming. Whitehouse concedes coal and fossil fuels will be part of the energy mix for years to come.
Both agree climate change isn't just the United States' problem to fix. And both think technology needs time to catch up so fossil fuels can burn more cleanly. Crafting legislation to shift more money toward that effort is goal No. 1, they said.
"People don't believe that we have a climate problem, and people believe that we can move on" without fossil fuel, Manchin said. "Both of them are deniers. Neither one of us are."
The two senators donned hard hats and safety glasses at the National Energy Technology Laboratory in Morgantown, where U.S. Department of Energy money is fueling research into cleaner fossil fuel energy. They visited the Longview Power coal-fired plant, and talked with Dominion Energy, American Electric Power and FirstEnergy executives about how federal regulations could affect their operations.
Thanks to lousy weather, Whitehouse didn't see his first coal mine.
Whitehouse was returning a favor with Wednesday's trip. About two weeks ago, Manchin visited Whitehouse in Rhode Island to see climate change's effects firsthand.
They visited coastal locations, including a summer community forced to retreat from shore due to beach erosion, and businesses in danger of washing out to sea. They also took a boat trip with fisherman and scientists to learn about how changes in ocean conditions, like rising temperatures, have hurt fishing.
The EPA aims to drop emissions from coal-fired plants by 30 percent nationally by 2030, compared to 2005. West Virginia would need to reduce emissions by 19.8 percent by 2030, compared to 2012 levels.
States must submit individual plans to comply by June 2017, or by June 2018 if they work with other states.
"We're not opposed to the rule," said Daniel Weekley, vice president of corporate affairs for Dominion Energy, Inc., which uses coal, nuclear and natural gas. "We're just trying to figure out how we fit all the square pegs into the round holes at this point."
Manchin called the timetables unreasonable for West Virginia, which gets 96 percent of its energy from coal, according to the EPA. Whitehouse said the rule is very flexible.
Both acknowledged that the climate change discussion could suffer if Republicans swipe the Senate majority this election.
"If there are people that deny there's a climate problem or carbon's not contributing to it, then we're not going to have a conversation that's going to be productive," Manchin said.