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Mining country says 'No' to the 'War on Coal'

Mark Mardell | 21:44 UK time, Tuesday, 7 December 2010

coal.jpgMount Storm in the US state of West Virginia is certainly living up to its name on the day I visit. It truly feels a long way from Cancun, the Mexican resort where the latest international climate talks are being held.

But a little thing like a blizzard does not stop the elongated lorries locally known as coal scuttles, loading up from the Mountain View Mine and trundling down the road to Mount Storm power station.

Coal was a big factor in the mid-term elections here, with signs saying, "No to the war on coal". The Democratic governor was elected senator, partly based on the strength of a notorious advert that showed him taking aim at US President Barack Obama's plans for a carbon tax.

The Republicans made coal the centre piece of their campaign, too - and there's no doubt the cap and trade bill is as dead as can be. Few expect much out of the climate summit in Cancun, but the president will now find it difficult to live up to the promises he made in Copenhagen last year. But this isn't all - the Republicans hope to roll back existing legislation at the national and state level.

I am watching the coal being loaded with the newly elected representative Gary Howell, who has just been elected to West Virginia's House of Delegates.

The vicious wind whips our face. It is the sort of cold that makes your face numb and your head hurt, but that is not what makes Delegate Howell doubt the findings of climate science.

"I do not believe in global warming. The earth has natural cycles. If you go back to the days of the dinosaurs when this coal was formed, we were in the middle of a tropical swamp. So the earth changes, that's natural. I don't believe it is manmade."

Mr Howell wants to introduce a bill that would allow 38 new mines to open in the state, even though they have been denied a licence by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). He argues that because the coal is all used within the state, the federal government should not have any right to interfere.

"The Obama administration is really putting the hurt on the West Virginia economy. They are creating unemployment in our state," Mr Howell says.

He adds: "What my bill does, it says where there is no interstate commerce, when the coal never leaves the borders, then the Environmental Protection Agency has no authority. There are some 38 mines that right now are shut down. My bill opens those mines up to start helping our economy. It reverses what the Obama administration has done."

Not surprisingly, he is dismissive of those who say Mr Obama should use more executive powers and tighten EPA targets.

"The EPA is part of the executive branch and when they pass regulations that were never voted on by the US Congress, they are overstepping their bounds. There is a separation between the executive and the legislature, and they are circumventing that," Mr Howell says.

This particular battle will be played out in the West Virginia House of Delegates. But many new Republicans up on the Hill will want to take similar measures on a national level. Mr Obama has suffered a power cut and, for a while at least, coal seems to be king again.

My reports on this story should be running on Radio 4's PM programme and BBC1 News at Ten. I have taken a few days off but will be back around this time next week.

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