Tennessee's Republican gubernatorial candidates on Thursday targeted the state's environmental regulators as an impediment to business opportunities.
Three of the four major Republican candidates speaking at a forum hosted by the Brentwood-Cool Springs Chamber of Commerce singled out the state Department of Environment and Conservation for being counterproductive.
"TDEC is out of control," said state Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey of Blountville. "At one time they would regulate what was supposed to be regulated, but they've crossed their bounds."
Ramsey also defended the state Legislature's refusal to pass measures to ban mountaintop removal coal mining.
"That bill would actually have basically banned coal mining in the state of Tennessee," Ramsey said. "We want to make sure we have that supply of energy."
U.S. Rep. Zach Wamp of Chattanooga said TDEC and the state Transportation Department are among "agencies in state government right now that are not cooperative."
"They need an overhaul," he said. "They need somebody at the very top that understands the business, and local government, and what it means to move things forward."
Wamp also rejected efforts to limit coal mining in Tennessee because it is part of an "all of the above" approach to energy policy.
"I sat around a campfire in Campbell County with all the experts, biologists, geologists, fishing and wildlife," he said. "It's actually good for the birds, and good the environment ... to actually mine coal in a responsible way.
"It's not a bad thing, it's a good thing," he said.
Memphis prosecutor Bill Gibbons said he would work to eliminate red tape in state government. He recalled a conversation with a Fayette County businessman who said he'd been delayed by state bureaucracy for 18 months in his attempts open a new business.
"The agency that he cited having difficulty with was TDEC," Gibbons said. "There seems to be a consensus on that."
Officials with Gov. Phil Bredesen's administration did not immediately return messages seeking comment. Bredesen has voiced support for banning mountaintop removal mining practices in the state. The Democratic governor can't run for re-election this fall because of term limits.
Knoxville Mayor Bill Haslam, a Republican who this week launched the campaign's first statewide political television ad, said he doesn't think an agreement on mining practices is out of reach.
"I'm confident from conversations with people in the coal mining industry and members of environmental groups that there really is a workable solution," he said.
Tennessee's 18 surface mines and five underground mines produced about 2.3 million tons of coal in 2008, or about 0.7 percent of the Appalachian total, according to data complied by the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
The chamber was scheduled to hold a similar forum for the main Democratic candidates next month. They include Jackson businessman Mike McWherter, Senate Minority Leader Jim Kyle of Memphis and former state House Majority Leader Kim McMillan of Clarksville.
Ramsey and Wamp also criticized Democratic-led efforts in Congress to limit carbon emissions in an effort to fight climate change.
"This is the coldest winter we've had," Wamp said. "Global warming needs to be based on solid science, evidence and consensus. We're not there yet."
Ramsey said burdens shouldn't be placed on business because of "emotional" environmental issues.
Most atmospheric scientists believe that warming is largely due to human actions, adding gases to the atmosphere by burning fossil fuels such as coal and natural gas. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported last month that the decade of 2000-2009 was the warmest on record worldwide.
Gibbons said his main environmental initiatives would include restoring Tennessee's wetlands fund, setting up a deposit system for disposable bottles and creating a fund to dispose of illegally dumped tires.
Haslam said Knoxville has conducted energy audits to reduce consumption. By doing that on the statewide level "we're going to save the taxpayers a whole lot of money," he said.