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Obama Cap-and-Trade Will Meet Coal-Fired Energy Political Opposition

By Michael Barone, Thomas Jefferson Street blog

Bill Galston at the New Republic's blog provides some clear thinking on the prospects for the Obama administration's cap-and-trade legislation. His conclusion: ain't gonna happen. Galston notes that national polls show that on the question of balancing economic against environmental considerations, voters have switched and are now more concerned about the economy--as in holding down utility costs--and less concerned about the environment.

And, as Galston points out, a cap-and-trade system would substantially increase the price of electricity produced by coal. Nationally, we get 49 percent of our energy by coal (these are 2006 figures, from the 2009 Statistical Abstract of the United States), but reliance on coal varies widely by state. The following table may help you to understand the political implications. It shows the percentage of electricity produced by coal in each state above the national average and the number of Democratic senators and representatives from each of those states.

Do the math. That leaves only 32 Democratic senators from less-than-average coal-reliant states and only 157 Democratic House members from less-than-average coal-reliant states. Now I'm not saying that every member from such states will vote against cap-and-trade, but I think an awful lot would. And I don't think many Republicans are going to vote for cap-and-trade. In his press conference last night, Barack Obama seemed to accept the Senate Budget Committee's Democrats' decision to jettison the money for cap-and-trade and expressed a wistful hope that something might be done later. But even in better economic times, the numbers tend to work against any such proposal.

It's interesting to see how different states are dependent on different kinds of energy. Nationally, 49 percent of our electricity comes from coal, 20 percent from natural gas, 19 percent from nuclear power, 7 percent from hydroelectric power and 2 percent from petroleum. We've seen which states are more likely to depend on coal; let's look at the other fuels.

Heavy dependence on natural gas is scattered among four groups of states (I'll supply the percentage of electricity produced by that fuel in each case). One is in the West, where other fuels aren't readily available or where coal-fired plants would produce huge pollution in urban areas like Los Angeles and Denver: Nevada (66 percent), California (49 percent), Arizona (31 percent), Colorado (23 percent), Oregon (21 percent). A second area is in states with high natural gas production, where the fuel can be easily piped to power plants: Texas (49 percent), Oklahoma (47 percent), Louisiana (44 percent), Mississippi (34 percent). The third is in the Northeast, where there are liquefied natural gas ports or where transportation costs for other fuels are prohibitive: Rhode Island (97 percent), Massachusetts (51 percent), Maine (43 percent), New York (30 percent), Connecticut (30 percent), New Hampshire (27 percent), New Jersey (26 percent). The final group consists of one state, Florida (43 percent).

Nuclear power also tends to be concentrated in some states, like South Carolina (51 percent), where there is a big federal nuclear plant, and Illinois (49 percent), where Commonwealth Edison (now Exelon) under CEO Thomas Ayers, father of Barack Obama's onetime pal, unrepentant terrorist William Ayers, pursued an aggressive nuclear plant building program. Other states that get more than 30 percent of electricity from nuclear power: New Jersey (54 percent), Connecticut (48 percent), New Hampshire (43 percent), Virginia (38 percent), Pennsylvania (34 percent), North Carolina (32 percent). Note that all the states but South Carolina voted for Barack Obama; many of their members in Congress routinely vote against nuclear power.

Hydroelectric power is even more concentrated, in states with access to rapidlyflowing rivers with dams. The Columbia River basin leads the list: Idaho (84 percent), Washington (76 percent), Oregon (71 percent). With the Sierras, California (22 percent) is also on the list. The dams in South Dakota (48 percent) put it on the list. Far away are three other states with greater than average reliance on hydroelectric power: Maine (25 percent) with its old-fashioned dams, Vermont (21 percent), and New York (19 percent), which long ago tapped Niagara Falls. No other state, not even Tennessee with its TVA dams, relies on hydroelectric for more than 8 percent of its electricity.

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By Michael Barone

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