‘Pro-Coal’ Democrat Employs Anti-Coal Staffers

Industry insiders question Rep. Nick Rahall’s commitment to coal energy

Rep. Rahall / AP
September 4, 2013

A prominent backer of a new group that claims to be a pro-coal voice in the Democratic Party has employed numerous staffers who have also worked for or been associated with environmentalist groups that vehemently oppose the use of coal.

Rep. Nick Rahall (D., W.V.) a strong proponent of coal energy, recently touted his efforts "to protect coal mining jobs in West Virginia and rein in the [Environmental Protection Agency’s] regulatory overreach."

Rahall authored one of the pieces of legislation in a recent package of House bills dubbed the Stop the War on Coal Act.

The congressman is also closely involved with a new group of Democrats that says it will exert pressure inside the party to be less hostile to coal.

"A viable energy future can only be achieved with clean coal. We applaud the CoalBlue Project’s recognition of this very important fact and its efforts to bring more voices to the table in support of sustainable coal," said Rahall in a joint statement with Rep. Bill Enyart (D., Ill.) on the launch of the group.

Despite his pro-coal statements, Rahall has a history of hiring staffers who are less friendly to coal energy during his tenures as ranking member on the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and as chairman of the Natural Resources Committee.

Rahall’s staffers on these committees have either been hired from, or gone on to work for, leading environmental groups such as the Wilderness Society, Defenders of Wildlife, the Center for American Progress, and other groups that oppose coal power.

Jean Flemma, a staffer on the water resources and environment Subcommittee, previously served as the executive director of the Prairie Rivers Network (PRN) from 2002 to 2007. She subsequently served on the group’s board until at least December 2010.

While serving on the PRN board, Flemma also worked for Rahall during his stint as chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee from 2007 to 2011.

PRN staked out numerous hardline environmentalist positions while Flemma worked for the natural resources committee. The group encouraged its supporters to contact lawmakers supporting EPA regulations on coal power plants, and sued a coal company over alleged violations of the Clean Water Act.

The lawsuit was undertaken in conjunction with the Sierra Club, one of the largest anti-coal activist groups in the country.

In testimony before the EPA in 2004, Flemma said that coal-fired power "threatens human health and contaminates our rivers."

PRN continues to put out studies criticizing the coal industry, and encourage further EPA regulation of the industry.

Another transportation and infrastructure subcommittee staffer, David Wegner, is currently a trustee and adviser to the Glen Canyon Institute, an environmentalist group that opposes a dam built on the Colorado river in Southern Utah.

The group does not work directly on coal issues, but it has partnered with the Sierra Club.

Wegner himself has donated to groups that oppose coal power. Western Resource Advocates thanked him by name for a contribution in a report that touted the group’s work in "defeat[ing] a proposal for a massive new coal-fired power plant in northern Nevada."

A spokesman for Transportation and Infrastructure Democrats did not respond to a request for comment.

Wendy Vanasselt, who worked on the Natural Resources Committee until 2010, worked on behalf of the Wilderness Society. Another former Natural Resources Committee staffer Laurel Angell lobbied for the Defenders of Wildlife.

Christy Goldfuss lobbied on behalf of the group Environment America before joining the committee. She left in 2010 for the left-wing Center for American Progress, where she has criticized the use of public lands for coal mining.

The environmentalist backgrounds of some of Rahall’s committee staffers have industry groups questioning whether CoalBlue will meaningfully change Democrats’ outlook on coal power.

"Time will tell which Nick Rahall the people of West Virginia believe more – the one with cozy ties to deep-pocketed anti-coal lobbyists or the one who claims to fight for America's most abundant and affordable domestic energy sources," said Benjamin Cole, spokesman for the Institute for Energy Research.

Cole alleged that Rahall touts his energy credentials in coal-heavy West Virginia, but courts Democrats’ environmentalist base in Washington.

"For his entire political life, Nick Rahall has tried to walk the line between representing the interests of West Virginia coal miners and supporting the pro-environmentalist, anti-coal agenda now pushed by Barack Obama and Harry Reid," Cole told the Washington Free Beacon.

"He's the quintessential Washington insider—cutting Beltway deals to protect the perks of his seniority status in Congress while thumping his chest back home about fighting to protect coal miners and their families," Cole added.