Coal Tattoo

Peak coal, goat ropes and Manchin’s energy bill


Coal Tattoo readers have probably gathered that I’m not a big fan of Bray Cary’s newspaper, The State Journal. But I happen to think Pam Kasey over there does great work covering energy and the environment. And I’m fascinated by some comments that their reporter, Gretchen Mae Stone, had in a story last week. (Thanks to West Virginia Blue for bringing them to my attention).

The story appeared to be about a bill in the U.S. Senate aimed at ending mountaintop, the same legislation I covered here. But I think these comments from Rep. Nick J. Rahall, D-W.Va., are the real news:

Rahall said the state’s most productive coal seams likely will be exhausted in 20 years. And while coal will remain an important part of the economy, the state should emphasize green job development. That, he said, is especially important as pressure against mountaintop mining increases.

Rahall said the pressure is coming from both Republicans and Democrats. During the 2008 presidential race, Republican nominee John McCain came out in favor of ending mountaintop mining.

“It’s something that’s evolving over time in our industry and the responsible segment of our industry realizes that,” he said.

rahall_photo.jpgThis is Nick Rahall here — his district covers West Virginia’s southern coalfields, where mountaintop removal is going great guns. And he’s been a strong supporter of this destructive practice, though he’s lamented that mine operators don’t do more to develop flattened land, and that regulators don’t make them do so.

Rahall’s comments raise a couple of questions.

First, of course, is: If coal isn’t a long-term economic engine, as these comments suggest, then does it make good sense to blow up more mountains and bury more streams for short-term gain?

Second, though, is what are policymakers and political leaders in West Virginia really doing to deal with the end of coal as a major economic engine — as the major economic engine in some southern counties?

I’ll never understand why some leaders of the larger coal counties don’t recognize that stronger enforcement, especially of post-mining land use requirements, would help them to create newer — and better — jobs for a long-term economy. (See Fixing OSM(RE, Part 2: Green jobs for the coalfields). Instead, folks like Logan County Commission Art Kirkendoll continue to push to do more of the same … more of the same that hasn’t worked in the past, that is. (Memo to Kirkendoll: Logan County is the second largest coal-producing county in West Virginia; 20 percent of its families live below the poverty level — twice the national average. Do the math.)

And some in the West Virginia media, like the Daily Mail’s editorial age, just keep rooting them on. See the Daily Mail’s editorial, Voices of reason on mountaintop removal, which says local political leaders should be the ones deciding how to enforce federal environmental laws governing coal mining. (Memo to DM: Read the legislative history of the federal Surface Mining Act. Congress specifically found that local political leaders were too likely to be corrupted by the mining industry, so they put the ultimate control over enforcement at the federal level.

So what are we doing about this?


Well, remember West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin’s State of the State address back in February? Manchin told us:

If we want to be a leader in renewable resources, we must commit to investing in the energy sources of the future. Throughout our history, our state has powered this nation.  West Virginians know energy better than anyone.  We must build upon our past successes and uncover even more efficient and cleaner energy sources.

Great, right? Not so much, according to Don Garvin, the lead lobbyist for the West Virginia Environmental Council. In a Gazette op-ed earlier this week, Garvin explained how Manchin’s bill is really keeping West Virginia stuck in the past, not leading us toward a clean energy (and green jobs) future:

The most disappointing aspect of the governor’s “Alternative and Renewable Energy Portfolio Act” (SB 297) is that it is such a missed opportunity.  Instead of offering a real renewable portfolio standard, it does a Texas two-step around it.

SB 297 establishes a system of tradable credits for electricity produced by alternative and renewable sources. These credits will be used to meet the governor’s goal that by the year 2025, one-fourth of electricity sold to West Virginia customers must come from alternative or renewable sources.

Credits are given for genuine renewable resources, which include: solar photovoltaic or other solar electric energy, solar thermal energy, wind power, run of river hydropower, geothermal energy, biomass energy, biologically derived fuel including methane gas, ethanol not produced from corn or biodiesel fuel, fuel cell technology, and recycled energy such as waste heat recovery. Credits are also given for projects that reduce greenhouse gas emissions and for energy efficiency and demand-side energy reduction initiatives.

However, credits are also given for “alternative energy” resources for generation of electricity that include all of the following: advanced coal technology, coal bed methane, fuel produced by coal gasification or liquefaction, synthetic gas, integrated gasification combined cycle technologies, waste coal, tire-derived fuel, and pumped storage hydroelectric projects.  Senate amendments added natural gas and nuclear energy.

…Most states that include “clean coal” specifically limit it to facilities that include carbon capture and sequestration, or require that they lead to a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. Some jurisdictions specifically exclude “pump-storage” hydropower facilities.

By including all of these sources as “alternative” energy, SB 297 undermines the goals and justification for a bill in the first place – to reduce carbon dioxide emissions – and it creates a system that puts West Virginia completely out of step with every other state in the country.

And if this is the path West Virginia (and other Appalachian coal states) choose, where will it lead us?

I think my friend Rick Wilson, a social and economic justice activist who writes the Goat Rope blog, nailed it.

Last week, Rick wrote a post called Noble Savages, in which he  criticized “out of state environmental writers” for pushing this narrative:

…The good guys are a bunch of Appalachian Noble Savages standing as one against the evil coal companies. The assumption is that if the practice just ended today, everything would be great.

Rick explains why this is wrong:

I’m not that worried about the evil coal company part of this action movie frame (which kind of works in some cases) but the rest is over-simplified. While probably a majority of West Virginians oppose the practice according to the public opinion research I’ve seen, this is a contested issue all the way down. There are noble and ignoble savages and non-savages on different sides of the issue.

There are no doubt people who work on mountaintop removal jobs who don’t like it deep down inside. And there are people who personally oppose it but accept it for economic or political reasons. Lots of people are conflicted to one degree or another for various reasons.

The happy ending part is also over-simplified. I think the results for southern West Virginia are going to be tragic no matter what happens. If it goes on as it has in the past, there will be huge environmental devastation, water contamination, floods, coal-related health problems, etc., not to mention more climate change impacts. And if it stops, there will be some job losses and a loss of revenue for public services from coal severance taxes.

In a follow-up post that I’ve mentioned before on Coal Tattoo, Rick offered these thoughts on what we could be doing:

*We need to start thinking in terms of the opportunities presented by the emerging “green collar economy.” Allow me to put in another plug for Van Jones‘ book of the same title. Many companies and public agencies are making more or less sincere noises about moving in a more sustainable direction. And there are public resources to support this emerging economy in both the stimulus package and President Obama’s proposed budget. There is also the possibility of using federal funds for reclaiming abandoned mines to create jobs aimed at mitigating some of the damage.

*One of the more interesting efforts to rethink economic development around here is Create West Virginia. In some of their publications, they emphasize that in order to move to a high road creative economy, we need to focus on talent, technology, tolerance and quality of life issues.

Here’s a question to think about: as we move into an economy in which creative and talented people will be able to work from anywhere, will the mined-out areas of southern West Virginia be anywhere anybody like that will want to live and work?

*I’m convinced that it is possible not only to have meaningful climate change policies, but to use these to help low income people and as well as areas like southern West Virginia deal with the changes.

A few years back, Robert Greenstein of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities suggested that the auctioning of carbon credits in a cap and trade system could be used to raise revenue to ease the impact of such changes on low income people, state and federal budgets, and workers and communities in affected industries. The Obama administration has embraced some of these ideas, but these are facing an uphill struggle in the Senate.

Sooner or later, something like a cap and trade system or carbon tax is likely to happen. It would be smart politically (in addition to being the right thing to do) for such policies to specifically provide assistance for those areas that sacrificed so much in the coal age.