Chandler, Barr can't find common ground on government's role in environment

07/07/2010 12:04 PM

Of the votes Democratic U.S. Rep. Ben Chandler has taken, the one he expects to hear most about in this fall’s race – and the one he says he’s most eager to defend – was his “Yes” for a bill aimed at curbing greenhouse gases.

Chandler voted last summer for legislation that would, among other things, put limits on emissions and create credits that companies and utilities could buy and swap, a quasi market-based system nicknamed “cap and trade.”

That vote sparked wide criticism from the coal industry and its supporters. It inspired a former coal operator, Mike Templeman, to run (albeit unsuccessfully) in this spring’s Republican primary for the right to challenge Chandler. And it remains perhaps the clearest contrast with GOP nominee Garland “Andy” Barr.

“Clearly, there is a dramatic difference between where I am and where the congressman is on energy,” Barr said in an interview Friday. “I am for Kentucky energy and he is not. That will be one of many (issues), but that’s a prominent one, sure.”

But it’s a debate Chandler said he’s itching to have.

“I think it was the right vote morally. I think it was the right vote, ultimately, economically for Kentucky,” Chandler said in a recent interview in his Washington office.  “And it was the right vote given the conditions of the political situation that exists … given where world opinion is on the subject.”

Despite passing the House last summer, the legislation hasn’t been approved by the Senate.

It’s still possible that an energy/environmental bill can come up again in Congress before the November election. But regardless of whether it does, voters in Kentucky’s 6th District can expect to hear plenty about it.

It will be perhaps more prominent in this race than many contests involving incumbent Democrats because Chandler has crossed party lines to vote against the majority in his own party on other controversial issues, such as the health care bill in March, the Wall Street relief bill — or bank bailout bill — passed in the fall 2008 and the financial regulatory reform bill that passed last month. That leaves Barr with fewer rhetorical arrows in his quiver than most Republican congressional challengers.

But Barr argues that it’s a crucial issue. He says Chandler demonstrated with that vote that he is out-of-step with a key Kentucky industry and supported legislation that Barr insists would cost the region vital mining jobs and compromise the state’s low power costs.

“My point is that cap and trade would have a devastating impact on Central Kentuckians and the Central Kentucky economy at a time when our unemployment is over 10 percent,” Barr said.

Chandler pointed to a full-page ad that has been running in Washington publications, such as Politico and The Hill, in which companies including General Electric, Dupont, Nike, Ford and Duke Energy, have called for “national energy and climate legislation that increases our security and limits emissions.”

To do that, Chandler said the country has two options: use regulations and taxes to punish companies that pollute or institute a quasi market-based approach of cap and trade that allows companies to swap emission “credits” to go beyond certain thresholds.

“You either have a tax model, or you have a free market sort of model,” Chandler said. “The irony of this is that cap and trade model was the one proposed by the Republicans. “

That’s true. Some Senate Republicans backed proposed legislation in 2008 that included a cap-and-trade provision.

But Barr said he is philosophically opposed to the government setting those restrictions on industries.

“That presumes that the free enterprise system isn’t motivated or incentivized to innovate on its own. I think that it is,” Barr said. He ticked off several “clean coal” approaches being tested now, such as using advanced scrubbers and even algae to cut greenhouse gas emissions.

Barr dismissed Chandler’s assertion that cap-and-trade is a market-based approach.

“Sure, it creates a marketplace, if you will, through a government bureaucracy … in terms of trading the pollution credits,” he said, adding that “artificial limitations and massive new regulations on our energy sector” is not consistent with “true free enterprise.”

Chandler said relying on industries and utilities to cut emissions themselves is “the ostrich approach.”

“There are only two ways to affect emissions. You’re not dealing with the climate issue unless you’re dealing with emissions,” he said. “You can either do it through the market approach or you can tax it. How else are you going to stop people from emitting?”

And that, at its core, is the fundamental difference the two major party candidates in the 6th District will offer voters, not just on the environment but on most approaches to governing. Coming later this week, cn|2 Politics further examines Chandler and Barr’s core philosophy on government’s role in the economy and health care.

- Ryan Alessi

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