The membership of the West Virginia Coal Association today announced it is endorsing Donald Trump, Republican of New York, for the office of president of the United States in this year’s election. The unanimous decision was made at a membership meeting in Charleston earlier today.
“Donald Trump has been firm and clear throughout his campaign in his commitment to rebuild America’s basic industries – the industries that made this country great – such as coal, steel and manufacturing” said Bill Raney, WVCA president, in announcing the endorsement. “Trump has said he will reverse the Democratic regulatory assault that has cost the coal industry more than 40 percent of our production and jobs since 2008.”
“In contrast, Hillary Clinton’s proposals essentially double-down on the job killing Obama policies,” Raney continued. “West Virginia can’t afford that and neither can the nation.”
“We believe that with the leadership team of Donald Trump in the White House and Bill Cole as Governor, West Virginia will begin to rebuild what we have lost to the Obama War on Coal and also look to the future once again with confidence.”
In this Tuesday, April 26, 2016 file photo, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks during a primary night news conference, in New York. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson, File)
By sometime early this evening, West Virginians will get to see first-hand whether presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump can give Democratic gubernatorial front-runner Jim Justice a run for his money in the category of pandering to coal miners.
Justice, of course, is falsely telling our state’s hardworking miners and their families that if they will just elect him governor, West Virginia will end up “mining more coal … than has ever been mined before.” Justice told Hoppy Kercheval to “mark it down.” While Justice was blustering, two of his companies were on trial in Wyoming County, facing a suit from 15 families who say one of his mining operations contaminated their drinking water wells. (UPDATED: The jury in the Wyoming County case ruled in Justice’s favor.)
Trump, meanwhile, had this to say the other night after winning the GOP primary in Indiana:
… And West Virginia. And we’re going to get those miners back to work. I’ll tell you what. We’re going to get those miners back to work … we’re not going to be Hillary Clinton, and I watched her three or four weeks ago when she was talking about the miners as if they were just numbers and she was talking about she wants the mines closed and she will never let them work again.
Let me tell you, the miners in West Virginia and Pennsylvania which was so great to me last week and Ohio and all over, they’re going to start to work again. Believe me. You’re going to be proud again to be miners.
Trump, however, has yet to explain exactly how he will revitalize Appalachia’s coal industry. To pull it off, he will have to overcome market forces and a push for cleaner fuels that have pummeled coal.
Coal’s slump is largely the result of cheap natural gas, which now rivals coal as a fuel for generating electricity. Older coal-fired plants are being idled to meet clean-air standards.
Another hurdle for reviving coal mining in Appalachia: less coal. Reserves of coal still in the ground are smaller than in western states like Wyoming, the leading coal producer.
The story goes on:
It is unclear what Trump would do to increase mining jobs. He has long criticized the Obama administration’s Environmental Protection Agency, saying that its proposals to tighten emission standards on coal-burning power plants are killing American jobs. A Trump adviser said that a Trump administration would review many EPA regulations including those affecting the coal industry.
While the requirements have raised the cost of operating coal-fired plants, experts say a bigger factor in coal’s decline has been cheaper natural gas. Drilling techniques such as fracking have sparked a boom in gas production, driving down prices and prompting utilities to switch from coal.
As recently as 2008, about half the electricity in the U.S. came from burning coal and one-fifth from burning natural gas. Today, each accounts for about one-third — nuclear, hydroelectric and renewables like solar and wind make up most of the rest. Weak economic growth has hurt demand for Appalachian coal used in making steel.
It was a pretty outrageous sight to see Don Blankenship, of all people, apparently rallying against Hillary Clinton’s plans and commitment to help our coal communities. As President, Hillary Clinton will prioritize federal legislation to make sure the likes of Don Blankenship can never again get away with showing such blatant disregard for our miners and their safety.
Our campaign is proud not to have Don Blankenship’s endorsement. If Donald Trump wants to accept his support, then he owes a serious explanation to the families of our miners we lost at Upper Big Branch and the people of West Virginia.
Coal miner Chris Steele holds a sign supporting Donald Trump outside a Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton event in Williamson, W.Va., Monday, May 2, 2016. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)
You’ve got to give Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton some credit, I guess. It would have probably been easier — especially at this stage of the campaign — to ignore places like Mingo County, West Virginia.
There’s plenty of media coverage already about the Democratic Party’s problems in the coalfields. What’s the upside to basically giving your opposition — not only in the November presidential race, but in races for control of Congress, state legislatures and governor’s offices — a handy pep rally?
Maybe the Clinton people have some polling that suggests they have some kind of shot to win here in the general election, though most people who follow such things seem to think otherwise. Maybe, as Sen. Joe Manchin was pitching the last few days, the Clintons really just care about showing their face in places that might otherwise think they’re just being left behind.
And maybe the Democrats generally really want to put some force behind the various plans — President Obama has one, so does Secretary Clinton and so does Sen. Bernie Sanders (so do Republicans like Reps. David McKinley and Evan Jenkins, by the way) — to try to deal with some of the coal industry’s massive legacy liabilities as part of a broader effort to find some path forward for communities whose main industry is in a steep decline.
But aren’t the Democrats missing something? Shouldn’t they even just once in a while make a larger point that life with coal as your only industry isn’t as rosy as some of the revisionist histories make it sound? Mines blow up. Slurry dams collapse. Workers die a slow, agonizing death from black lung. Pollution of the air, land and water makes people sick.
Photo by Chris Dorst – Trump supporters protest across from Logan Middle School, Sunday, before Bill Clinton’s arrival for a rally.
For the last four or five years, one of the rally cries among the “War on Coal” crowd has been that it was unfair for the Obama administration to be putting in place new environmental rules on coal-fired power plants without coming to the coalfields to hear from people whose “way of life” might be affected.
Kevin Stone works for National Armature and Machine, a motor and water pump service business in Holden, Logan County.
“They think this is just hurting the coal jobs, but it’s killing everyone,” he said. “My family’s lived in West Virginia for generations, I’ve been a Democrat all my life and now I’m never voting for a Democrat.”
Arnold Killen, of Harts in Lincoln County, held a Trump sign outside the Logan rally. Did he think Trump would bring back the coal industry?
Killen shrugged, “Well, he didn’t say he was going to destroy it.”
Inside the cafeteria, where the crowd ultimately drowned out protests, there was far more Clinton support.
“I think she’s good for women and children,” Marsha Bryant, of Holden, said. “I happen to be a woman and I think it’s time.”
Anita Weyenberg, Bryant’s sister and another Clinton supporter, noted that they were both daughters of a coal miner.
“Daddy hated the fact that his kids wanted to go in the mines,” she said. “The mines are gone. They’re not coming back. I think it’s time to move on.”
A recent study — another in a long line of them — about mountaintop removal’s public health impacts is making the rounds on social media.
My apologies for missing this when it was originally posted online (apparently in February), but here’s the link, and the study is called, “Lung and Bronchus Cancer Deaths in Boone County, WV, Before and After Mountaintop Removal Mining.”
Basically, the study found that:
Lung and bronchus cancer [LBC] death rates have increased significantly since the introduction of MTR in Boone County (all genders, ages, corrected for age). All site cancer death rates have likewise increased significantly over time. There were significantly more deaths from LBC in MTR counties than in non-MTR counties of WV. The Boone County deaths could not be completely accounted for by smoking cigarettes … Occupation had no effect on deaths from LBC for males, however, for females; homemakers had a significantly elevated risk of death than their working counterparts.
The study concludes:
The population in Boone County has decreased over time. Other sources of air pollution and routes of contaminant exposure may have contributed to these increases but if so their nature and source(s) are not known. In the absence of other sources of exposure, the data suggest that the introduction of mountaintop removal mining could have affected mortality in Boone Co., WV.
Last evening, the defense team for former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship filed the last of its arguments in its effort to keep Blankenship from having to begin serving his prison sentence while an appeal of his conviction is being considered.
I’ve posted a copy of the defense’s latest filing with the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals here. Blankenship’s original argument to the 4th Circuit that he be allowed to stay free on $1 million bond pending his appeal is here, and the government’s response is here.
The defense’s new filing from last night argues, as did their original brief, that Blankenship’s appeal of his conviction raises at least four significant issues:
— That U.S. District Judge Irene Berger gave the jury an incorrect definition of what constitutes a “willful violation” under federal mine safety laws.
— That the indictment against Blankenship was legally insufficient because it alleged safety violations without identifying the safety standards Blankenship conspired to violate.
— That Judge Berger refused to allow the defense a second shot at cross-examining former Massey official Chris Blanchard.
— That the judge wrongly gave the jurors a definition of “reasonable doubt.”
For the 4th Circuit to stay Blankenship’s sentence pending his full appeal, the court has to be convinced that at least one of these issues raises a substantial question that, if decided in Blankenship’s favor, would warrant his conviction or sentence being overturned. Without action by the 4th Circuit, Blankenship is scheduled to report to a so-far unidentified federal prison on May 12.
Prosecutors have made clear that bond release pending appeal is supposed to be the exception in the federal system, and they added this quote from an earlier case, which explains that just because some defendants can afford better lawyers to try to raise better questions on appeal doesn’t mean that bond release should be a given in those cases:
Federal district courts and judges in the courts of appeals know very well that the Congressional policy behind the Bail Reform Act and the subject of post-conviction and sentencing detention must be wisely administered, in order to protect the criminal justice system from the wrong perception that judges have two measuring sticks, one for regular criminals and a more lenient one for the white-collar defendant.
It’s not enough that Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jim Justice is tossing around nonsense about how electing him will assure that West Virginia “mines more coal … than has ever been mined before.” Now, Justice is just tossing science on climate change totally under the bus. Just look at what he told the Beckley paper:
Until we have really accurate data to prove (that humans contribute) I don’t think we need to blow our legs off on a concept. I welcome the scientific approach to it and the knowledge. I would not sit here and say, ‘absolutely now, there’s no such thing’ or I would no way on Earth say there is such a thing. I believe there’s an awful lot of scientist that say, ‘no, no, no, this is just smoke and mirrors.’ I welcome the discussion, but I don’t know, I just don’t know.
Until we have really accurate data? Smoke and mirrors? Despite what he says, it’s clear that Justice doesn’t welcome the scientific approach to this issue.
Last night, prosecutors filed their brief with the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to oppose former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship’s request to remain free on bail while appealing his conviction for conspiring to violate federal mine safety and health standards.
Here’s their summary of their argument:
A criminal defendant’s conviction and sentencing bring with them a strong presumption that he will serve his sentence without delay. By his motion to stay his sentence pending appeal, Defendant-Appellant Blankenship (“Defendant”) seeks to evade that presumption. He cites four supposed reversible errors and says his sentence should be delayed because of them. The record reveals, however, that the district court was exceptionally careful and thorough in resolving Defendant’s legal contentions both before trial and during it. Defendant’s appellate claims simply are weak, and success for him on appeal is improbable.
But rival candidate Booth Goodwin, who has U.S. Atttorney prosecuted Blankenship — isn’t going to let Justice just walk away from this one.
This morning, the Goodwin campaign unveiled a new ad (it’s being distributed on social media, at least) featuring Dr. Judy Jones Peterson, whose brother, Dean Jones, died at Blankenship’s Upper Big Branch Mine. Here’s what Dr. Peterson says:
I don’t really understand why Mr. Justice would step out against the integrity of this incredible prosecution team. He of all people as a coal mining operator should understand the plight of coal miners, but I think unfortunately that the plight he understands best is the plight of Don Blankenship.
As some readers may recall, Dr. Peterson had previously asked that Jim Justice issue a public apology after Justice questioned the Blankenship prosecution.
Aside from the gubernatorial campaign, one potential impact of this strategy by the Goodwin team is to give more ammunition to Blankenship’s defense lawyers, who certainly want to make an issue in their appeal of the politics they say drove the entire prosecution in the first place. So far, this argument from Blankenship’s lawyers didn’t get any traction with U.S. District Judge Irene Berger or much sympathy from the jury — but who knows what might happen going forward.
On the other hand, it’s certainly different to hear a candidate for governor in West Virginia campaign on the fact that he prosecuted a coal company CEO for putting miner safety and health at risk.
I’ve asked the Justice campaign and the Blankenship defense team if they’d care to comment on this new ad, and will update readers if I hear back from them.
Here’s the announcement today from the U.S. Department of Labor:
The U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Workers’ Compensation Programs today issued a final rule to strengthen safeguards for the health of coal workers. The rule makes significant revisions to the regulations implementing the Black Lung Benefits Act that will give miners greater access to their health information, bolster the accuracy of claims decisions, and require coal mine companies to pay all disability or survivor’s benefits due in a claim before modification can challenge the award.
In an otherwise typical press release responding to the downgrading of West Virginia government’s bond rating, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin had a pretty interesting line. It went like this:
During my State of the State address, I acknowledged the unprecedented shift that has taken place in our state and our nation and its impact on our state’s coal industry. Across the country and around the world, the coal industry – an economic driver that has supported West Virginia for generations – is facing serious challenges. This is not a typical downturn. This one is different, and even the most optimistic among us realize it is unlikely that coal will ever reach the production levels of the past.
I am telling you and you just mark it down. Jim Justice is telling you today two things. We are going to end up in West Virginia mining more coal in West Virginia than has ever been mined before. Mark it down. And the other thing is we’ve got to be diversified off the chart, because even when we were mining coal at our highest levels we were still 50th at everything coming or going. What does that tell us? It tells us we’ve got to have everything else. We’ve got to have tourism and agriculture and education and on and on and on.
Justice has a good point there in that last part — West Virginia’s economy has always been challenging, even when the coal industry was going great guns. But let’s just look at that first part again:
We are going to end up in West Virginia mining more coal in West Virginia than has ever been mined before.
Maybe there’s some analysis I haven’t seen, or some report that’s not yet been widely circulated. Maybe Jim Justice knows something the rest of us don’t. He is a billionaire after all. And he loves West Virginia.
So I asked Justice campaign spokesman Grant Herring for more information. Starting last Wednesday, I wrote to Grant about Justice’s statements:
I’m hoping that you could point me to 3 examples of independent experts or published reports that support this statement as being factual.
If you don’t have three independent experts or published reports, I’d be interested in whatever data or evidence Mr. Justice and/or his campaign have that would tend in any way to support this statement? What exactly is the basis for such a statement?
Didn’t hear a word back. Wrote him twice more. Crickets.
As so much attention swirls around the potential environmental consequences of the rash of coal industry bankruptcies, two new lawsuits filed today by the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy and other groups provide some much needed context to that issue.
Today, a coalition of environmental and community groups filed two lawsuits in federal district courts in West Virginia to hold the state accountable for mining pollution generated from seven former mine sites now owned and managed by the WV Department of Environmental Protection (WVDEP).
When mine operators in West Virginia go out of business before they complete all of the reclamation required by law, the state becomes responsible for finishing the clean-up, including managing any water pollution coming from the site. However, coal mines continue to generate harmful water pollution long after the mines are shut down. Today’s lawsuits allege that West Virginia is violating the Clean Water Act by discharging a variety of mining pollutants at levels that exceed water quality standards and permit limits from sites in Barbour, Nicholas, and Preston counties.
The lawsuits — I’ve posted them here and here — target alleged violations at sites where the DEP holds water pollution permits as part of its troubled Special Reclamation program, where the agency treats pollution left by bankrupt mining operations, but the sites still involve some regulated discharge. In the end, what environmental groups really want is to force the state to provide more funding — hopefully from the coal industry — to ensure that discharges from these and other sites don’t violate permit limits.
Cindy Rank, mining chairwoman for the Highlands Conservancy, said:
By burying their heads in the sand these past two decades and ignoring how the looming crisis of bankrupt coal companies would further deplete the state’s inadequate Special Reclamation Fund, West Virginia lawmakers have virtually guaranteed that citizens and taxpayers will be the ones responsible for cleaning up these coal company messes.
Kelley Gillenwater, spokeswoman for the WVDEP, declined to comment on the lawsuits.
The recent boom and bust of unconventional oil and gas development, or “fracking,” has reopened serious questions about resource management in many U.S. states. While the oil and gas boom generated revenue, jobs, and economic development, the recent bust has adversely impacted state budgets due to declining industry investments in exploration and production and job cuts.
The boom-bust cycle of unconventional oil and gas development highlights the need for strategic management by state governments of fracking-related revenues, not only to minimize the less desirable aspects of the boom-bust cycle but also to enhance long-term prosperity. States can address these challenges by imposing a reasonable severance (extraction) tax on their oil and gas industry and channeling a portion of the revenue into permanent trust funds. In doing so, states can convert volatile near-term revenues from unconventional oil and gas development into a longer-term and continuous source of investment funds for building sustainable and dynamic economies.
Locally, the West Virginia Center for Budget and Policy is noting the significance of this issue to our state:
“This study not only adds additional credibility to our research on creating a permanent mineral trusts fund in the state, but it makes clear that we need to fully fund our state’s Future Fund in order to improve the state’s long-term fiscal health and diversify our economy,” said Ted Boettner, Executive Director with the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy.
The West Virginia legislature passed a bill to create the West Virginia Future Fund in 2014. The bill was amended to remove reliable funding mechanisms, however, and to-date has failed to be funded. The West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy released a report in 2012 that provides recommendations on how the make the West Virginia Future Fund successful.
Taking a major step to strengthen liquidity and reduce debt amid an unprecedented industry downturn, Peabody Energy Corporation (NYSE: BTU) today voluntarily filed petitions under Chapter 11 for the majority of its U.S. entities in the United States Bankruptcy Court for the Eastern District of Missouri. Through this process, the company intends to reduce its overall debt level, lower fixed charges, improve operating cash flow and position the company for long-term success, while continuing to operate under the protection of the court process.
All of the company’s mines and offices are continuing to operate in the ordinary course of business and are expected to continue doing so for the duration of the process. No Australian entities are included in the filings, and Australian operations are continuing as usual.
I’ve posted a copy of their Chapter 11 Petition here.
As has been widely reported, this isn’t really any surprise. Readers in West Virginia might want to recall this, which we reported last month:
More than three-quarters of Peabody’s production comes from the Powder River Basin, in Wyoming, where the company’s North Antelope Rochelle Mine last year generated 109 million tons of coal, more than all of the mines in West Virginia combined.
Twenty years ago, Peabody, through its Eastern Associated Coal Corp. subsidiary, was among West Virginia’s largest coal producers. Today, the company lists no producing mines in West Virginia in its filings with MSHA. Peabody has no active mining permits on file with the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection, with all the permits in its name having been reclaimed, said DEP spokeswoman Kelley Gillenwater.
In explaining its move to seek bankruptcy protection while reorganizing, Peabody said this:
The factors affecting the global coal industry in recent years have been unprecedented. Industry pressures in recent years include a dramatic drop in the price of metallurgical coal, weakness in the Chinese economy, overproduction of domestic shale gas and ongoing regulatory challenges.
What’s important today are the feelings of the families who lost loved ones. I hope all of the families have the opportunity to be heard on whether or not they feel justice was served.
But it sounds like Justice has decided to add to those comments, at least according to this story from WOAY:
I think we spent an ungodly amount of money within our state to probably keep Booth Goodwin in the limelight and end up with a misdemeanor charge. If that’s all we are going to end up with, why did we spend that much money to do that?
This comes a day after Justice’s gubernatorial campaign was touting a new campaign ad in which United Mine Workers of America President Cecil Roberts — in what seemed like quite an awkward phrase — called Justice “one of the good coal operators.”
It is hard to imagine what the families of those 29 miners have been through. Think about it. Your husband or son or brother or father is snatched away — blown away really — stolen from your family in a violent underground explosion.
But it’s not like they just didn’t come home from work one day. You got a terrifying phone call. The phone call mining families have come to fear, but somehow always know could come. And then you spent a couple days in the ritual of waiting and hoping and praying that maybe, just maybe he somehow survived.
But even when that reality hits you, it’s not like you got to just bury him and grieve and try to find a way to live. There were meetings, and hearings and lawsuits. And all of the people from the media — maybe they’re just trying to do their job, but after a while having a microphone in your face gets kind of old.
And then, the CEO of the company who ran the mine that blew up got indicted. Maybe there would be justice, you thought. But then there was the trial. And it seemed like it would never end. And it was confusing — What were all the lawyers talking about up at the judge’s bench? What do all of these objections mean? Are those jurors even paying any attention to any of this?
Finally, though, there was a verdict. But even then — even then — everybody keeps talking about how none of this was really about what happened to him. What happened to all of them. It was about something else, not about what happened to those 29 miners.
Today, lots of people will talk about how they remember, how they’re praying for the families. How they’ll never forget.
I’m sure that’s all true. People do remember, and they do pray. Certainly, those families will never forget. The pain that folks like Gary and Patty Quarles must feel. I can’t imagine. They lost their son at Upper Big Branch. That never goes away. They won’t forget what happened.
But what about the rest of us? How can it be that today, of all days, there aren’t hundreds of people over in front of the Robert C. Byrd United States Courthouse for a protest or a vigil or just a quiet remembrance? Where are all those friends who care so much about our state’s coal miners now? What about the people who had a chance to speak up before all those miners died, and didn’t? What about all of us, who have a chance now to speak up, to do whatever needs to be done to make sure it doesn’t happen again?
Because while today is a day like many others on the coalfield calendar, tomorrow is a quite different sort of day.
During a hearing scheduled to start at 10 a.m., U.S. District Judge Irene C. Berger will sentence that CEO who got indicted. Don Blankenship is really a legendary sort of figure in Appalachia and the coal industry. He was once one of the region’s most powerful men. He’s still one of its richest.
Tomorrow in court, Blankenship will stand convicted by a federal jury of conspiring to willfully violate mandatory mine safety and health standards. He faces up to a year in prison and a $250,000 fine.
It’s a remarkable thing. A historic development. The CEO of one of the region’s largest coal companies was convicted of a mine safety crime after the worst mining disaster in a generation.
It’s true that Blankenship, as the defense makes clear in its recent court filings, wasn’t charged with blowing up the mine. He wasn’t convicted of causing that explosion, of killing those 29 men.
But what Assistant U.S. Attorney Steve Ruby outlined in his sentencing memo to Judge Berger is also true:
We have known for a very long time what makes coal mines explode. We have known for a very long time how to prevent it. And, sadly, we have known for a very long time that some mine operators will ignore these hard-learned lessons until the law compels them to take notice. The mine safety laws, it is said with good reason, are written in coal miners’ blood.
Defendant knew full well the awful risks, dramatized time and again in ghastly fashion over the years, that he was taking by flouting the mine safety laws at Upper Big Branch. There was no mystery about what poor ventilation meant: buildups of methane that would ignite with the slightest spark. Yet UBB’s miners were left pleading for air. There was no question what accumulations of coal dust meant if not properly treated: a powder keg 1,000 feet below the surface, primed to blow at any time. Yet black dust pervaded the mine, a calamity in the making.
There was nothing the least bit hidden or mysterious about the dangers of how Defendant chose to run UBB. They manifested themselves openly, obviously, to anyone with the most basic knowledge of coal mining, and certainly to Defendant.
Ruby goes on to remind us about Blankenship, and provide more important context:
How does one take the measure of such a crime? Defendant was the chief executive of one of America’s largest coal companies—a multibillion-dollar behemoth with its shares traded on the New York Stock Exchange, a fleet of private aircraft, luxurious board meetings at posh resorts around the country, and vast resources to support its mining operations. He had every opportunity to run UBB safely and legally. Instead, he actively conspired to break the laws that protect coal miners’ lives. Although already fabulously wealthy by the time of the criminal conspiracy of which he stands convicted, Defendant’s greed was such that he would willfully imperil his workers’ survival to further fatten his bank account.
Deciding a just sentence will be up to Judge Berger. And of course, Blankenship’s appeal will be up to the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
Deciding the potential penalties for a criminal conspiracy that puts miners at risk, though … well, that’s up to Congress. And when was the last time you heard any of West Virginia’s elected officials — either on the state or federal level — talking about the need to change that law, to make mine safety crimes felonies, and provide more serious punishments?
I have seen it all before. First, the disaster. Then the weeping. Then the outrage. And we are all too familiar with what comes next. After a few weeks, when the cameras are gone, when the ink on the editorials has dried, everything returns to business as usual. The health and the safety of America’s coal miners, the men and women upon whom the nation depends so much, is once again forgotten until the next disaster.
Just this morning, both Sens. Joe Manchin and Shelley Moore Capito issued statements to mark the Upper Big Branch anniversary.
Sen. Manchin said:
Six years ago I grieved with the miners’ families, West Virginians and the entire nation during the hours and days after the unspeakable mining tragedy at Upper Big Branch. Today on this sad anniversary, our hearts weigh heavy as we remember the tragic Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster. Not a day goes by that I don’t think about the 29 brave West Virginia miners we lost that day, who went to work and never returned home to their loved ones. I stayed with the miners’ loved ones through moments of hope and despair in the days following the devastating tragedy and saw the unbreakable bonds of family.
No family or community should ever endure a preventable tragedy like the one at Upper Big Branch again and this day reminds us that we always must put safety first. The health and safety of our miners will always be my top priority and I have always been committed to ensuring our miners return home safely every night. Our hearts are still broken and Gayle and I join all West Virginians in honoring those miners’ memories as we grieve their loss and pray for continued strength for their families.”
Sen. Capito said:
It’s hard to believe that six years ago today 29 miners lost their lives in an explosion at the Upper Big Branch coal mine. For many West Virginians, especially those who lost loved ones and friends, the memories from that terrible day are still so fresh in our minds. My heart still aches for the families of the 29 miners whose lives were forever changed on April 5, 2010. As our state continues to heal from this tragedy, I will continue my efforts to protect our coal miners who selflessly put their lives at risk in order to provide for their families and power our state.
No real mention in there of anything either of them has done recently to try to get any sort of mine safety bill, especially one that would toughen the penalties for mine safety crimes, moving in Congress. Thinking about the families and praying for them is obviously worth doing. But trying to divorce the mine disaster completely from the Blankenship case — and especially divorcing the weak state of current criminal laws about mine safety violations — seems to be quite a disservice to the men who died and to their surviving families.
It’s like we feel compelled to remember the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster, but it’s convenient to at the same time forget how it happened and what needs done to make sure it doesn’t happen again.
It’s hard to believe that it took Hoppy Kercheval at MetroNews until today to try to twist into some sort of politically motivated effort to destroy our way of life what was really little more than a bungled effort by Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s at explaining her coalfield economic aid package.
But never fear, because Hoppy’s commentary doesn’t disappoint. He paints the real point of Secretary Clinton’s comments — that she wants to help coal communities that are suffering because of complex changes in our nation’s energy economy — as some sort of afterthought that she cooked up after Sen. Joe Manchin complained about the one sentence that industry has jumped on:
By Tuesday, Clinton was walking back her comment in a letter to Manchin. “Simply put, I was mistaken in my remarks,” she wrote. “I wanted to make the point that, as you know too well, while coal will be part of the energy mix for years to come, both in the U.S. and around the world, we have already seen a long-term decline in American coal jobs and a recent wave of bankruptcies as a result of a changing energy market—and we need to do more to support the workers and families facing these challenges.”
But Hoppy is hardly the worst among our state’s media when it comes to misinforming the public on this particular story. Here’s the Wheeling paper’s editorial:
Clinton, comfortably in the lead for the Democrat Party nomination for president, now seems positively boastful about her plans for the coal industry and for the coal-fired power plants on which tens of millions of Americans rely for reasonably priced electricity.
She wants to shut down as many mines as she can. She plans to use draconian taxes to make it impractical for utilities to use coal for power generation.
And then, remarkably:
During the same campaign stop, Clinton insisted that as president, she would help miners who lose their jobs because of her policies. She has not been specific about that, no doubt because if she has a plan, it is much like the socialist government strategies of the past: Offer laid-off workers a few years of unemployment benefits, then forget about them.
The Wheeling paper is just wrong. Like her plan or not, Secretary Clinton does have a plan and it’s actually reasonably specific (though the Gazette-Mail’s David Gutman did note in this story that how the total figure was reached was not entirely clear). Those folks at the Wheeling paper can read about the plan here.
Hoppy and the Wheeling paper are hardly alone. You can see how much attention this one sentence is getting with a quick Google News search. Within the space of two days, The Associated Press had put out two separate stories that described the comments from Secretary Clinton as her having “declared” that she was going to put coal miners and coal companies out of business.
Declared? Well, you can watch the video yourself and decide if you think that’s an accurate characterization. Someone at AP must not have — because after they put that out on the wire a second time, the write-thru of the story changed the wording and actually put the comments in a little bit more of the proper context.
But the damage was done. And I’m not talking here about damage to Secretary Clinton’s campaign. That’s her problem. The damage we should all be concerned about is the damage to our already severely weakened ability to actually discuss what’s happening in our coalfield communities, understand what’s driving changes in our energy economy, and try to find ways to come out the other side as a stronger, better state.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., flanked by Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., left, and Majority Whip John Cornyn, R-Texas, right, talks to reporters following a closed-door policy meeting at the Capitol in Washington, Tuesday, March 15, 2016.
As predicted, the media obsession with one sentence from one presidential candidate continues, but it’s interesting to dig deeper into some of the reactions to Democrat Hillary Clinton’s comments about her plans for helping the nation’s struggling coal communities (by the way, I’ve posted Secretary Clinton’s letter to Sen. Joe Manchin here).
… When President Obama was a candidate, he boasted that his energy tax policies would make electricity prices skyrocket for American families. When President Obama took office, his administration declared a war on coal families and on their jobs. For a time, his administration tried to deny it was declaring war on anyone, but now we hear boasting from the highest ranks of the Democratic Party that these policies are going to put coal miners out of business Miners in Kentucky and across the country know that coal keeps the lights on and puts food on the table. What they want is to provide for their families. But here is how more Democrats seem to view these hard-working Americans and their families: just statistics, just the cost of doing business, just obstacles to their ideology. This is callous, it is wrong, and it underlines the need to stand up for hard-working, middle-class coal families. That is what I have done here in the Senate. That is what I will continue to do. I hope our colleagues will join me.
I understand the Republican leader’s concern about coal not being the way it was. It is simply that the American people have made a decision that we are going to have to look for another way to produce energy. There is still a place for coal in our society, but everyone has to acknowledge that it is not as it was a few years ago. I wish the Republican leader cared more about moving to help the pensions of these coal miners. They are desperately looking for support. We support them on this side. All the coal miners support it. We can get no support from the Republicans. We tried during the work we did at the end of the year. We came close, but Republicans said no.
I want all those coal miners from Kentucky and around the country to understand that we are trying to help them with their pensions, but unless we get some help from the Republicans, there will be no support. That is too bad. We are trying. We are trying. We are trying.
For decades, coal has been the dominant energy source for generating electricity in the United States. EIA’s Short-Term Energy Outlook (STEO) is now forecasting that 2016 will be the first year that natural gas-fired generation exceeds coal generation in the United States on an annual basis. Natural gas generation first surpassed coal generation on a monthly basis in April 2015, and the generation shares for coal and natural gas were nearly identical in 2015, each providing about one-third of all electricity generation.
The recent decline in the generation share of coal, and the concurrent rise in the share of natural gas, was mainly a market-driven response to lower natural gas prices that have made natural gas generation more economically attractive.
Environmental regulations affecting power plants have played a secondary role in driving coal’s declining generation share over the past decade, although plant owners in some states have made investments to shift generation toward natural gas at least partly for environmental reasons. Looking forward, environmental regulations may play a larger role in conjunction with market forces. Owners of some coal plants will face decisions to either retire units or reduce their utilization rate to comply with requirements to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from existing fossil fuel-fired power plants under the Clean Power Plan, which is scheduled to take effect in 2022 but has recently been stayed by the Supreme Court pending the outcome of ongoing litigation.
And who would have thought:
Beyond the growing market share for natural gas-fired generation over the past decade, coal’s generation share has also been reduced by the growing market share of renewables other than hydroelectric power, especially wind and solar. Unlike the growth of natural gas-fired generation, which has largely been market-driven, increased use of nonhydro renewables has largely been driven by a combination of state and federal policies. The use of renewable energy sources such as wind and solar has also grown rapidly in recent years so that generation from these types of renewables is now surpassing generation from hydropower.