Unqualified Republican support for fossil fuels is thought to be an axiom of American politics, ranking up there in self-evident certainty with Social Security being the third rail.
In the past week, however, slivers of daylight opened between Republican lawmakers and fossil fuel interests. It's too early to say for sure, but it's a sign that some Republican leaders are adding space in their politics for a more thoughtful, more stewardship-oriented approach to the environment.
The first occurred during the debate over the omnibus lands bill, which survived a tortuous path through a parliamentary obstacle course to pass the Senate and House with solid bipartisan majorities. The second involves the scarred mountains of Appalachia.
One of the protective measures in the omnibus lands bill withdraws 1.2 million acres of Forest Service land in the Wyoming Range from new oil and gas development. Sportsmen love the Wyoming Range for the elk, mule deer, moose and cutthroat trout that its unspoiled habitat produces in abundance.
The withdrawal was a top priority for the late Senator Craig Thomas, a Republican who died in office two years ago. His successor, Republican John Barrasso, picked up Thomas' Wyoming Range cause and ran with it.
Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, the march-to-his-own-drummer iconoclast who took it upon himself to block the omnibus, claimed that the Wyoming Range provision would bar access to 8.8 trillion cubic feet (tcf) of gas and 300 million barrels of oil.
Not so, Barrasso fired back. He quoted U.S. Geological Survey estimates that the Wyoming Range holds 1.5 tcf of gas and 5 million barrels of crude. That equates to about three weeks of domestic gas usage and about 5 hours and 45 minutes of oil consumption.
Not worth it, Barrasso continued. Before hearing his reasons, let's be clear. Wyoming Republicans are as politically far removed from urban coastal enviros as it's possible to get this side of Sarah Palin. They stand second to no one in supporting oil, gas and coal production from their well-endowed state.
But not always and everywhere. In defending the Wyoming Range, Barrasso called for "a balance between helping the nation meet its energy needs and maintaining the quality of life the people of Wyoming have come to enjoy."
Now, on to the coal country of Appalachia. Mountaintop removal coal mining has ripped up forests, buried drainages, and disrupted rural communities and family life across a million acres in West Virginia and neighboring states.
Senator Lamar Alexander, Tennessee Republican, has signed on to legislation that essentially would end the destructive practice. The bill introduced by Alexander and Maryland Democrat Ben Cardin would amend the Clean Water Act to bar the disposal of "overburden" mining lingo for soil, rocks, and plant life atop the coal seams into streams and rivers.
The logic of the legislation is irrefutable. It's hard to keep streams clean when you're obliterating them.
As in the Wyoming case, let's be clear. Alexander believes that coal will be a central player in our energy economy for a long time to come.
That doesn't mean, however, that anything goes. Alexander said, "Coal is an essential part of our energy future, but it is not necessary to destroy our mountaintops in order to have enough coal." Millions of people visit Tennessee "to enjoy the natural beauty of our mountains," he continued.
The point being, in Wyoming and Tennessee alike, stoking consumption is not the sole measure of land's value. The land returns value to our nation just as it is, just as it's always been. That is the true essence of conservatism.
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