By Luke Popovich

“This is the winter of our discontent,” wrote Charles Dickens.  That would still be a fair description of the state of most American workers and their employers these days.  But thankfully it’s not a spot on description of the coal community right now.  On the contrary, all things considered, it’s so far been a pretty good winter for us, at least from the jaundiced perspective of the nation’s capital.  Here, where coal producers confront a Congress and administration less favorable to coal than any in the past decade, these first weeks of the New Year have been better than looked likely this fall.

Arguably the biggest threat coal producers face is climate change legislation featuring steep cuts in carbon emissions mandated to take effect before the technology is available to reduce them.  That was a live prospect last year with the climate change bills teed up in both Houses of Congress.  Now it is a very distant prospect that either will pass.  Enthusiasm for any cap and trade plan was already waning before the Copenhagen conference blew up without an international agreement, and may evaporate altogether as the November elections approach.

Coal state democrats see no advantage in signing on to a bill to cap emissions devised by California and Massachusetts liberals in the midst of a crippling recession.  The mood has shifted so much that even coal state Democrats who voted against these bills face Republican challengers who insist those votes weren’t enough to protect coal jobs and production.  “What have you done for coal lately?” seems to be the question they now must answer.

So much for Congress; what about the administration?  The White House pursuit of emission reductions through the EPA’s authority in the Clean Air Act was supposed to goad Congress into action.  It did.  It goaded a handful of members in both houses to threaten to strip the EPA of its authority to regulate power plants and other stationary sources if the agency persisted.  A classic illustration of being careful what you wish for lest you get it.  Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) led the counter attack with a resolution that would invoke a Senate prerogative to stop the regulatory machinery until the EPA figured out the attendant costs and what carbon control technologies might be acceptable for coal-based power plants.

Fueling the fire of opposition to climate change controls has been a growing scandal over the integrity of the climate science developed by the UN.  Climate science is imploding along with Toyota sales.  Leaked e-mails from climate scientists officially charged with making the scientific case for strong action at first raised suspicions about their motives and objectivity. They appeared to deliberately ignore contrary evidence and discredit skeptical scientists. Only the so-called global warming “deniers” seemed to care.  Now in recent weeks more serious revelations, topped by accusations of fraud, have been aired by major media, culminating in calls that the lead UN scientist resign.  Well respected scientific authorities insist the revelations, while troubling about the motives of partisans, have not so far shaken the fundamental case for reducing carbon emission.  But the scandal damages the case advocates have made for immediate action and casts a pall over their objectivity that was vital to their political alllies.

In this town, science only goes so far in shaping policy.  More potent for getting attention is the verdict of voters.  Certainly the surprising election in Massachusetts last month of a little known republican to fill the seat held by the late Sen. Kennedy did nothing to brighten prospects for climate change legislation.  New Senator Scott Brown campaigned as a climate change skeptic rather than an outright “denier,” but his election will deprive Democrats of the 60 votes they need to override Republican objections to a cap and trade bill.  Republicans emboldened by his victory and by recent Republican gubernatorial wins in New Jersey and Virginia are likely to dig their heels in against any climate change bill this year simply because the president wants one.

But a clearer sign of coal’s shifting fortunes in Washington was the meeting in mid-February between some coal state governors and the president and his key environmental and energy advisers.  Held in the White House ostensibly to talk about energy, the meeting became a “candid” discussion—code for “confrontational”—about administration actions that are menacing the coal industry.  Governor Joe Manchin (D-WVa.), Dave Fruedenthal (D-Wyo.) and Steven Beshear (D-Ky.) delivered a pro-coal chorus of complaints about EPA slow-walking permit approvals, inadequate support for carbon control technologies and demands for carbon controls that will hurt U.S. industries.  Manchin told the president and EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson that her agency’s “enhanced review” of mining permits lacked “clarity” and provided neither guidance nor standards for industry’s consideration.

And then there was the record-breaking accumulation of snow that fell on this city last month, paralyzing the capital for a week with frigid cold and impassable streets.  It was coal weather and maybe a reminder to those here that wind turbines and solar panels are sometimes useless—and that Washington, like the country it governs, gets half its electricity from our favorite fuel.

Popovich is a spokesperson for the National Mining Association, the industry’s trade group based in Washington, D.C.