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Sunday, January 11, 2009

Kingsport Times - Ideological zealotry leads to Boucher’s benching

The writer is seeing what I am seeing. From the KTN -

Last year, during his campaign appearances with presidential candidate Barack Obama, Ninth District Congressman Rick Boucher, D-Abingdon, constantly reminded his constituents that the Illinois senator was “a friend of coal.”

Apparently, someone forgot to deliver that message to Boucher’s boss, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

After chairing the influential House Energy and Environment subcommittee for eight years, Boucher has been unceremoniously dumped in favor of Rep. Ed Markey, a decidedly liberal Massachusetts Democrat who will take a key role in legislation on global warming and other environmental issues. Even the name of the committee has been changed — it’s now “Energy and Environment” — reflecting the broader jurisdiction of Markey’s expanded legislative fiefdom.

Markey’s appointment effectively signals an end to even a political pretense that Speaker Pelosi intends to pursue anything resembling a balanced legislative agenda vis-a-vis the nation’s energy needs and the environment.

Rep. Boucher has been that increasingly rare thing in Washington: a committed environmentalist who also recognizes the necessity of utilizing one of America’s most abundant natural resources: coal.

Over nearly three decades, Boucher has helped craft federal legislation that has simultaneously aided the coal industry while making the air we breathe cleaner than it has been in a generation. It’s an absolutely extraordinary accomplishment that should be applauded and rewarded, not swept aside. But, as is apparent, House leadership obviously values ideological conformity over reason and intellectual integrity.

Ironically, it is Boucher’s very commitment to fairness in energy and environmental issues that has doomed his chairmanship.

As Rep. Boucher knows well, the coal industry has long had well-entrenched enemies in Washington, making a coherent, long-term energy strategy by the industry extremely difficult. Although great strides have been made to develop cleaner burning coal-fired plants, the public's anxiousness about coal is constantly aggravated, mostly by politicians on Rep. Boucher's side of the aisle.

Most congressmen don't come from coal-producing districts or states. That gives many members the luxury of decrying the supposed sins of the coal industry without having to come up with a viable energy alternative for the folks back home. Speech by speech, district by district, such rhetoric has turned the coal industry — along with tobacco and big oil — into one of the chief villains of modern America.

Yet, coal-fired power plant emissions have been cut by one-third since 1970 while the amount of coal used for power generation has grown threefold in the same period. It's also the case that modern coal-fired plants produce electricity at about half the cost of natural gas plants.

It's obvious that it is chiefly government regulation that makes natural gas more attractive to utility providers than coal. It is certainly not a matter of economics.

If the average citizen were surveyed on what he or she considers the greatest public policy success of recent times, polls suggest the two winners would likely be crime and welfare.

The national crime rate has fallen about 30 percent in the last decade, and the nation's welfare caseload has declined approximately 57 percent. But the average citizen doesn't know that the reduction in air pollution dwarfs the improvements in either welfare or crime. The decline in air pollution has been steady and consistent for 30 years while crime and welfare have only improved in recent years, and the crime rate is still higher today than in 1970.

Aggregate emissions of the six major pollutants regulated under the Clean Air Act have fallen by a staggering 64 percent since 1970. And yet, for most of the last 30 years, public opinion about the environment has been pessimistic, with large majorities — sometimes as high as 70 percent — telling pollsters the environment is getting worse.

In and of itself, Boucher’s loss of a subcommittee may seem like only so much inside baseball. But the loss is not merely Boucher’s alone. The loss is to the American people who desire and deserve thoughtful and balanced energy and environmental policies.

What they now have, instead, is the specter of Speaker Pelosi and her colleagues like Rep. Markey who keep shouting at the top of their lungs that the environment is going to hell in a hand basket when it is actually improving enormously.

Cumulatively, such alarmist and false rhetoric translates into very real policies that have the effect of elevating caprice over common sense, and that will eventually doom the coal industry to the status of an artifact of history, rather than as a vital source of energy for the future.

It has begun.

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