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Rust Belt Residents Uneasy Over Climate Change Bill

Nestled in Ohio's Amish country, Bill Belden's 124-year-old family owned brick company has thrived on the region's rich red clay and shale, and cheap energy from abundant coal.

Which he's convinced that a climate bill being considered in Congress will end.

A cap-and-trade system forcing businesses away from fossil fuels, especially coal, will mean higher electricity and natural gas costs, he says. And layoffs at the Belden Brick Co.

"We're already under severe economic strain," said Belden, standing beside towering stacks of fresh bricks outside one of the six plants that ring Sugarcreek.

The town, about 80 miles south of Cleveland, calls itself "the Little Switzerland of Ohio." Signs dot the highway hailing the annual Swiss Festival, quaint bed and breakfasts, and restaurants that feature traditional Dutch Amish cooking.

It's brick, however, that's Sugarcreek's economic foundation.

A lifelong Republican, Belden said his criticism of the Democratic-run Congress over global warming isn't about politics, but economics. "We've got to compete in the world and to do so we need low cost energy," he argues.

Bills before the House and Senate would cut greenhouse gas emissions by 17 percent to 20 percent over the next decade and by more than 80 percent by midcentury. The government would cap emissions from power plants and industrial plants, forcing polluters to shift from fossil fuels or buy emission credits. Either way, energy prices will jump, though by how much is the subject of much dispute.

In Ohio, and across much of the heartland from Michigan and Indiana to the Dakotas, and in Missouri and Arkansas, where agriculture and manufacturing are the business engines, the government's effort to curb climate-changing pollution is viewed widely through an economic prism: Will it increase energy costs and drive businesses and jobs overseas to countries such as China that may not commit to similar controls on fossil energy?

President Barack Obama and congressional leaders need centrist Democrats from those states to overcome solid Republican opposition to climate legislation passed by the House and awaiting Senate action.

Nowhere is the predicament more apparent than in Ohio. Here, 80 percent of the electricity comes from coal, unemployment tops 11 percent and more than one-quarter of million manufacturing jobs have vanished over the past decade.

"The climate change bill is all about jobs," said Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio.

With strong support from both environmentalists and labor unions, he's in the precarious position of trying to reconcile the urgent need to address climate change while assuring people in Ohio their jobs can be protected.

Brown's answers: push for more clean energy jobs — think wind turbines and solar panels — and make sure any bill helps offset energy price spikes and doesn't cause a plant to shut down, open shop in China and release even more carbon dioxide.

"I see it as an opportunity to make this bill work for manufacturing," he said in an interview.