Coal Tattoo

W.Va. and global warming: Coal wins another round


As it stands now, the amount of money dedicated to coal in this bill is remarkable, and the future of coal will be intact.

UMWA spokesman Phil Smith

Major forces in West Virginia’s political establishment are all united now in opposing passage of the American Clean Energy and Security Act, the bill considered by many to be the current best hope to get some national action to deal with global warming.

All three of our state’s House members (two Democrats and one Republican) plan to vote against the bill if it comes up for a vote today. The West Virginia Chamber of Commerce has been drumming up press coverage attacking the measure, and the coal-mining industry certainly is against it. (See today’s op-ed commentary by renegade coal operator Bob Murray.)

The news this morning was quite a reminder of how much West Virginia’s leaders allow their concerns about coal to drive their actions, despite the growing body of research that the  costs of the industry outweigh its economic benefits (See Weighing coal’s costs and What does coal cost Kentucky?)


secretary-randy-huffman-portrait_small.jpgFirst, you had W.Va. Environmental Protection Secretary Randy Huffman, insisting he wasn’t at a U.S. Senate hearing to promote mountaintop removal, but then proceeding to do exactly that:

West Virginia and the nation need jobs and coal … Coal production is the leading revenue generator for West Virginia, and many in the state are concerned about losing opportunities for future economic development associated with mountaintop mining.

alanmollohan.jpgrahall_photo.jpgAt about the same time, Reps. Nick Rahall and Alan Mollohan, both Democrats, were announcing that they would abandon their party and their president, and join Republican Rep. Shelley Moore Capito to vote against the Waxman-Markey bill to limit greenhouse gas emissions.

Most folks from outside of West Virginia probably expected nothing less … In the political world, our state is seen as focused on little more than trying to get every last bit of coal we can, regardless of the cost in lives or environmental damage. Most of the time, like now, we fit right into that stereotype, even embrace it.

But this one should be viewed as a little more complex. Why?

Well, just look at that quote from Phil Smith, the very thick-skinned communications director for the United Mine Workers of America union. Here it is again:

As it stands now, the amount of money dedicated to coal in this bill is remarkable, and the future of coal will be intact.

Phil told me that in an e-mail message at about 1:45 p.m. yesterday, more than three hours before Mollohan, and then Rahall, announced that they would vote against the bill. Now, Phil was careful to not officially, formally, endorse the legislation. Here’s the rest of what he told me:

“There is more that we want to see in this legislation that recognizes the critical role the coal industry and coal miners must play if we are to keep America energy self-sufficient for the foreseeable future. More work remains to be done to address those concerns, especially with respect to level of emissions reductions as we move forward. The target of 17% emissions reduction by 2020 does not provide sufficient time for the commercial application of carbon capture and storage technology on new and existing power plants.

“Further, we are reviewing the analysis issued by EPA and still want to see more comprehensive analyses from EPA and EIA that address the short-term and long-term impact on coal production and coal employment from this legislation. These analyses are critical to understanding those impacts and where the legislation needs to be further refined as it moves through the legislative process.

“We are very appreciative of the fact that our voice has been heard as legislation has been developed. As it stands now, the amount of money dedicated to coal in this bill is remarkable, and the future of coal will be intact. Depending on what happens to this legislation as it makes its way through the legislative process, we may not be able to support it in the end. But a start has been made that recognizes the critical importance of coal to our nation’s energy future.”

So, it should have come as no surprise when staffers for both Mollohan and Rahall cited concerns about the impacts on coal in explaining their decisions to vote against the bill. One staffer even specifically cited a UMWA one-page position paper, which I’ve posted here. In the paper, which has been circulating on Capitol Hill, the union makes the case for these and other changes it wants to see in the bill:

— A further weakening of the near-term — by 2020 — emissions reduction target, which has already been reduced from what President Obama wanted, because the 17 percent in the bill “does not provide sufficient time for commerical application of carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology on new or existing power plants.

“CCS is important, because more than half of the electricity in the U.S. is produced with coal, the cheapest and most abundant U.S. fuel. Use of CCS instead of shutting down coal plants will greatly reduce the impact on electricity prices and reduce the demand for energy imports. CCS will eventually be needed to abate emissions of carbon dioxide from natural gas as well as coal.”

–  Adjustment to require emissions permit purchases for greenhouse gases emitted in producing imports, to avoid raising U.S. energy prices relative to other countries that do not limit greenhouse gas emissions, and avoid the movement of jobs to those developing countries.

–  Allow unused emission allowances to be carried forward, to ensure they will be available when energy producers are gearing up to use them to defray the costs of CCS.

It would be easy to depict this as a case where the UMWA opposed this bill, or is just pushing to further weaken it. And it’s tempting to point out that is continuing to not endorse the legislation, the UMWA is siding with two of its biggest enemies in the coal industry, Massey Energy President Don Blankenship and Murray Energy’s Bob Murray.

But Phil Smith assures me — he insists, actually — that the UMWA never, ever opposed the bill:

We consistenly said we wanted to see it improved, but NEVER, repeat NEVER worked against it nor lobbied anyone to be against it.

murrayicecream.jpgAnd it would be unfair to Cecil Roberts not to point out the simple fact that his political reality is that people like Blankenship and Murray fight every day to keep the UMWA out of their mines. If you think Blankenship and Murray don’t use issues like climate change and mountaintop removal against Cecil — telling potential UMWA members that the union isn’t outspoken enough against environmentalists — you’re just wrong.

I don’t know about Mollohan, but there’s little doubt that Rahall worries about the same sort of politics. Rahall doesn’t particularly want protesters at an anti-mountaintop removal rally quoting him as having said West Virginia’s coal is going to run out in 20 years, as several folks did earlier this week down at Marsh Fork Elementary School. Rahall would much prefer stories like this one in the Beckley paper, which quotes him vigorously defending coal:

I’m fighting like crazy to keep these jobs. Those small numbers who send out scare tactics need to be enlightened. They’re doing a disservice to those who are responsible. People in the big cities who take electricity for granted need to be enlightened … as to where it comes from … the hard-working coal miners. And it’s from an industry in West Virginia that knows how to provide jobs in an environmentally responsible fashion.

Joseph Romm at Climate Progress (THE must-read blog on global warming issues) predicts that the current bill would be pretty hard on the coal industry.  But the world’s scientists, through the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, have emphasized that CCS is one of the major steps that need to be taken to reduce emissions and avoid cooking the planet.  But CCS has lots of problems, and deploying it on a commercial scale could be several decades away.

The UMWA is rightfully worried about what happens to the coal industry, its members, and coalfield communities if the short-term emissions reductions are too drastic. But climate scientists tell us that time is running out … the planet may be reaching tipping points, and the longer we postpone emisisons reductions, the more difficult and costly they will be.

As the Union of Concerned Scientists explained:

… The United States must reduce its emissions an average of 4 percent per year starting in 2010. If, however, U.S. emissions continue to increase until 2020—even on a “low-growth” path projected by the Energy Information Administration (EIA)—the United States would have to make much sharper cuts later: approximately 8 percent per year on average from 2020 to 2050, or about double the annual reductions that would be required if we started promptly. The earlier we start, the more flexibility we will have later.

So the two issues — the UMWA’s drive to protect jobs until CCS can be deployed and the need to quickly start reducing emissions — are kind of at odds, on a collision course that seems pretty hard to avoid.

Virginia Rep. Rick Boucher sure seemed to be working hardtoo hard and too much for utilities, some critics said — to head off that collision, and get changes to the bill that would allow folks like Mollohan and Rahall to support it.  Indeed, as I reported yesterday, the most recent edition of the United Mine Workers Journal outlined a long list of coal-friendly provisions. While the bill seems to generally have environmental group support, some organizations say these coal sweeteners make it worthless, as the other Ken Ward (an activist who is no relation to me but writes for Grist) explains.


The fact remains that to do something about global warming means that something must be done about coal’s greenhouse emissions. Despite some Coal Tattoo commenters who keep saying otherwise, coal is the largest source of these emissions.  And one 500-megawatt coal-fired power plant’s greenhouse emissions are equal to that of 600,000 cars.


Earlier this week, a poll released by ABC and The Washington Post found that most Americans favor action to reduce global warming pollution.  Last year, a similar survey found that most West Virginians favor solar and wind power and more conservation over coal, oil and nuclear power as a path toward “energy independence.” Polls in West Virginia have also consistently documented a majority of residents oppose mountaintop removal.

It doesn’t seem like elected leaders here agree with their constituents. And if the news early this afternoon turns out to be right, the climate bill appears headed for House passage, and the country may be moving on — with or without West Virginia.