Are the South and the Midwest splitting on energy?
The sponsors also maintained substantial support for the legislation even in the Midwestern states expected to generate the most opposition because of their heavy reliance on coal for electricity. Overall 48 of the 60 Democrats from the Midwest and the Plains states supported the bill, including 10 of 12 in Illinois, 8 of 10 in Ohio, and all eight in Michigan. …
Still, the most widespread Democratic defections came from Southern states, most of which backed McCain over Obama last November. Eighteen of the 44 Democratic “no” votes came from the 11 states of the Old Confederacy; 40 Southern Democrats supported the bill. That means nearly a third of Southern Democrats opposed the bill, a higher defection rate than in the Midwest and Plains (20 percent), much less the Northeast (8 percent) and the Pacific West (just under 7 percent).
What you see here is the beginning of a dynamic I expect to accelerate in coming years: the divergence of the South (specifically coal-mining Appalachia) and the Midwest on energy politics. For a long while they’ve been hand-in-glove, the coal producers and the manufacturers who use their cheap, dirty power. But those manufacturing areas have been bleeding jobs for a long time now. Cheap power isn’t doing them much good. They need new jobs. And where are those jobs going to come from? What other plausible area of expansion is there for American manufacturing? Clean energy, of course.
That’s why you see Midwest Dems edging forward on this stuff. They’re getting the jobs pitch. Their desperate constituents are getting the jobs pitch. This is one of the very few reasons I’m not despairing yet about the Senate vote. Right now Midwestern Dems like Sen. Claire McCaskill (Mo.) are making concerned noises. But we saw how skillful negotiation and persuasion from Waxman and Pelosi brought most of their House counterparts around. Once Midwest Senators start hearing the same arguments — from Obama among other people — I predict they’ll soften. (This is assuming a minimal standard of competence from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, so caveat emptor.)
The South, still in the grips of regulated monopoly coal utilities and generally eco-hostile culture, is a tougher nut to crack. But on this issue, like so many others, it’s beginning to isolate itself. The South has blocked progress in the country for a long, long time, on a stunning array of issues, but it can’t do so entirely alone. It needs allies, at least allies of convenience. And on energy, it’s beginning to lose them. Soon it will be alone on the sinking coal ship.
Does it need to be, though? Are the coal utilities right that “clean coal” is the only alternative for the region? Pretend for a moment that it isn’t about the intricate historical web of personal and financial relationships among legislators, regulators, and regulated utilities in such states. Pretend that coal utilities hadn’t long since abandoned innovation in favor of regulator management. Pretend this were a substantive determination: do Southern states have the resources they need to reduce emissions in the short term and maintain thriving economies?
Our regional assessment, drawing on recent government and regional studies, suggests sufficient renewable energy resources to meet as much as 30 percent of the Southeast’s electric power needs within the next 15 years. … With prompt policy action, energy efficiency improvements could reduce electricity use more than 10 percent by 2015 and 20 percent by 2025.
In other words, the South doesn’t have to be trapped in the past. Its leaders just seem to like it that way.