Coal Tattoo

No climate bill likely ‘this year or next’?


The New York Times reports this morning, in a story headlined, “No clear map for Democrats on path to new energy plan”:

Congress is unlikely, this year or next, to establish the “cap and trade” system for curbing carbon emissions that Mr. Obama and party leaders seek. Nor are world leaders at a climate conference in Copenhagen next month likely to strike a concrete deal to limit emissions in the name of curbing global warming.

The reason?

Though advocates insist that transforming energy policy will bring economic and environmental benefits alike, rising joblessness has amplified attacks from critics who deride Mr. Obama’s energy policy as a big-government “cap and tax” plan.


I don’t know if the Times is right about this one … it seems a stretch to call legislation’s fate more than a year out … but if it turns out to be correct, the underlying reasons – what’s behind these attacks on the climate legislationare explored in much more detail in a special report from the Center for Public Integrity, “Toward a Stalemate in Copenhagen: How Industry Pressures and National Agendas Dim Prospects for a Climate Treaty.” In the project’s overview story, reporter Marianne Lavelle leads with this from the Appalachian coalfields:

In the poor, but mineral-rich mountains of the eastern United States known as Appalachia, coal millionaire Don Blankenship hosts a rally for “Friends of America” to hear country music and “learn how environmental extremists and corporate America are both trying to destroy your jobs.”

And then cites similar scenes from around the world:

On the other side of the globe, with an eye on his venture in an Australian port town known both as a gateway to the Great Barrier Reef and a smokestack industry haven, aluminum billionaire Oleg Deripaska battles that nation’s program to address climate change as “destructive for jobs, destructive for new and existing investment.”

And in China, ambitious renewable electricity plans look like an important step toward tackling global warming, but progress lags due to built-in and deeply entrenched favoritism for cheaper fossil fuel. “There’s no need for anyone to get over-excited,” says Lu Qizhou, the government appointee who heads China’s big power industry group. Change from the coal-fired energy system will be slow and won’t outpace “the market’s ability to cope.”

In summary:

Around the world the story is the much same. Wherever nations have taken the first modest steps to stave off a looming environmental calamity for future generations, they’ve triggered a backlash from powers rooted in the economy of the past. Opponents of climate action may have different methods as they pressure different capitals, but the message is consistent: Be afraid that a cherished way of life may be lost. Be afraid that a better standard of living will never be had.

So what’s the response to this from Democratic political leaders in West Virginia, here in the heart of the Appalachian coalfields?


Well, the latest is an op-ed under the name of Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., published in Sunday’s Gazette-Mail and some other state newspapers (and touted in an e-mail blast at 8:36 a.m. Sunday by Rockefeller’s Senate press office as a “Must Read”). Gazette-Mail copy editors gave it the headline, “I’ll support no bill that threatens West Virginia coal,” while Rockefeller’s PR staff called it, “A strong future for West Virginia.”

The new op-ed included its share of “be afraid” stuff:

Unless a clear and achievable path forward for coal is laid out, our coal heritage and coal jobs are at risk of being left behind.  Instead, we must defend our way of life, and make sure that if a plan does become law, it actually works for West Virginia and invests in coal.

Senator Rockefeller previously made some strong statements, just a week ago, that the coal industry needed to stop pretending that climate change wasn’t real:

A lot of people and some operators I run into fairly frequently say it’s all a hoax. Well, it isn’t. It is of course, real, and we have to do something about it.

The question is do you want to produce coal, or do you want to sit back and be scared of some government program. Coal miners can’t be afraid of the future. They’ve got to look at this and say, ‘That’s the future.’

In today’s op-ed piece, Rockefeller had this to say about climate change:

Whether or not we all agree, the consensus in this country about climate change and greenhouse emissions is settled. And opportunities always follow the consensus, which means every day we spend fighting with each other about the underlying science is a day we are not fighting to secure our future.

OK … this is kind of the standard line from a variety of folks in West Virginia who have decided to engage in the policy debate over climate legislation, instead of — as Massey and Don Blankenship have done — try to pretend the problem doesn’t exist. The sound bite goes something like: Well, whether you think global warming is real or not, Congress thinks it’s real, so we better try to make sure the bill is written in as coal-friendly a way as possible.

You can understand Rockfeller, the United Mine Workers, American Electric Power and others not wanting to start trying to explain global warming science to coal miners and others in the coalfields. It’s complicated. It doesn’t fit into a neat soundbite.  And, as Upton Sinclair said, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”

But the NY Times piece and the Center for Public Integrity project seem to suggest that this strategy — just tell coalfield residents that a climate bill is inevitable, so we need to try to craft it to help coal as much as we can — just isn’t working.

So you have to wonder if folks like Rockefeller might not want to start using their op-ed pieces, public appearances, and meetings to do more than just cheerlead for coal.

Why not start making the case for why action is needed to avert catastrophic climate change? You don’t hear much from West Virginia’s Democratic political leaders about the impacts of a warming world, about how cheap it is to deal with the problem, or how the cost of inaction is much greater than the cost of doing something.

And while they’re at it, why not start being honest about the “external costs” of the coal industry, and proposing policy changes that would internalize some of those costs?

In his new op-ed, for example, Rockefeller writes that, among the “most immediate threats to coal”  are “environmental impacts.” He writes of  “a disturbing number of Republicans and Democrats in Congress who oppose surface mining altogether,” and of “preventing excessive EPA regulations.”

Lots of things aren’t mentioned, though … There’s the WVU study that found coal costs Appalachia more in premature deaths than it provides in economic benefits.  Or maybe the $62 billion in annual “hidden costs” caused by air pollution from coal-burning power plants. Perhaps the emerging scientific consensus about the damage mountaintop removal is doing to the region’s forests, streams and communities.

When efforts by Congress to limit greenhouse gas emissions are depicted as some troublesome “threat to coal,” instead of a response to a serious problem, it’s no wonder the idea doesn’t get much support from coalfield residents, let alone the coal miners among them. When permit reviews aimed at reducing damage from surface mining are seen as “excessive EPA regulation,” it’s no wonder hundreds of miners turn out to oppose the idea.

Maybe the Democratic elected officials from West Virginia honestly don’t think climate change deserves to be addressed. Maybe they think burying hundreds of miles of streams with waste rock and dirt from coal mining is not something EPA should be concerned about. Perhaps they’re not interested in $62 billion in “hidden costs” or conducting a true cost-benefit analysis of this industry.

But what would happen if they started talking about those things, and then proposing solutions?