Sen. Byrd: “Coal Must Embrace the Future”

December 3, 2009 by Ken Ward Jr.


This is the full text of a statement today by Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va. — And audio is available by clicking in this button:

For more than 100 years, coal has been the backbone of the Appalachian economy. Even today, the economies of more than 20 states depend to some degree on the mining of coal. About half of all the electricity generated in America and about one quarter of all the energy consumed globally is generated by coal.

Change is no stranger to the coal industry.  Think of the huge changes which came with the onset of the Machine Age in the late 1800’s.  Mechanization has increased coal production and revenues, but also has eliminated jobs, hurting the economies of coal communities. In 1979, there were 62,500 coal miners in the Mountain State. Today there are about 22,000. In recent years, West Virginia has seen record high coal production and record low coal employment.

And change is undeniably upon the coal industry again.  The increased use of mountaintop removal mining means that fewer miners are needed to meet company production goals. Meanwhile the Central Appalachian coal seams that remain to be mined are becoming thinner and more costly to mine. Mountaintop removal mining, a declining national demand for energy, rising mining costs and erratic spot market prices all add up to fewer jobs in the coal fields.

These are real problems. They affect real people. And West Virginia’s elected officials are rightly concerned about jobs and the economic impact on local communities.  I share those concerns.  But the time has come to have an open and honest dialogue about coal’s future in West Virginia.

Let’s speak the truth. The most important factor in maintaining coal-related jobs is demand for coal. Scapegoating and stoking fear among workers over the permitting process is counter-productive.

Coal companies want a large stockpile of permits in their back pockets because that implies stability to potential investors. But when coal industry representatives stir up public anger toward federal regulatory agencies, it can damage the state’s ability to work with those agencies to West Virginia’s benefit. This, in turn, may create the perception of ineffectiveness within the industry, which can drive potential investors away.

Let’s speak a little more truth here. No deliberate effort to do away with the coal industry could ever succeed in Washington because there is no available alternative energy supply that could immediately supplant the use of coal for base load power generation in America. That is a stubborn fact that vexes some in the environmental community, but it is reality.

It is also a reality that the practice of mountaintop removal mining has a diminishing constituency in Washington. It is not a widespread method of mining, with its use confined to only three states.  Most members of Congress, like most Americans, oppose the practice, and we may not yet fully understand the effects of mountaintop removal mining on the health of our citizens. West Virginians may demonstrate anger toward the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) over mountaintop removal mining, but we risk the very probable consequence of shouting ourselves out of any productive dialogue with EPA and our adversaries in the Congress.

Some have even suggested that coal state representatives in Washington should block any advancement of national health care reform legislation until the coal industry’s demands are met by the EPA. I believe that the notion of holding the health care of over 300 million Americans hostage in exchange for a handful of coal permits is beyond foolish; it is morally indefensible.  It is a non-starter, and puts the entire state of West Virginia and the coal industry in a terrible light.

To be part of any solution, one must first acknowledge a problem. To deny the mounting science of climate change is to stick our heads in the sand and say “deal me out.” West Virginia would be much smarter to stay at the table.

The 20 coal-producing states together hold some powerful political cards. We can have a part in shaping energy policy, but we must be honest brokers if we have any prayer of influencing coal policy on looming issues important to the future of coal like hazardous air pollutants, climate change, and federal dollars for investments in clean coal technology.

Most people understand that America cannot meet its current energy needs without coal, but there is strong bi-partisan opposition in Congress to the mountaintop removal method of mining it. We have our work cut out for us in finding a prudent and profitable middle ground – but we will not reach it by using fear mongering, grandstanding and outrage as a strategy. As your United States Senator, I must represent the opinions and the best interests of the entire Mountain State, not just those of coal operators and southern coalfield residents who may be strident supporters of mountaintop removal mining.

I have spent the past six months working with a group of coal state Democrats in the Senate, led by West Virginia native Senator Tom Carper (D-Del.), drafting provisions to assist the coal industry in more easily transitioning to a lower-carbon economy. These include increasing funding for clean coal projects and easing emission standards and timelines, setting aside billions of dollars for coal plants that install new technology and continue using coal. These are among the achievable ways coal can continue its major role in our national energy portfolio. It is the best way to step up to the challenge and help lead change.

The truth is that some form of climate legislation will likely become public policy because most American voters want a healthier environment.  Major coal-fired power plants and coal operators operating in West Virginia have wisely already embraced this reality, and are making significant investments to prepare.

The future of coal and indeed of our total energy picture lies in change and innovation. In fact, the future of American industrial power and our economic ability to compete globally depends on our ability to advance energy technology.

The greatest threats to the future of coal do not come from possible constraints on mountaintop removal mining or other environmental regulations, but rather from rigid mindsets, depleting coal reserves, and the declining demand for coal as more power plants begin shifting to biomass and natural gas as a way to reduce emissions.

Fortunately, West Virginia has a running head-start as an innovator. Low-carbon and renewable energy projects are already under development in West Virginia, including:  America’s first integrated carbon capture and sequestration project on a conventional coal-fired power plant in Mason County; the largest wind power facility in the eastern United States; a bio-fuel refinery in Nitro; three large wood pellet plants in Fayette, Randolph, and Gilmer Counties; and major dams capable of generating substantial electricity.

Change has been a constant throughout the history of our coal industry. West Virginians can choose to anticipate change and adapt to it, or resist and be overrun by it.  One thing is clear.  The time has arrived for the people of the Mountain State to think long and hard about which course they want to choose.

49 Responses to “Sen. Byrd: “Coal Must Embrace the Future””

  1. bo webb says:

    It is great to see and hear Senator Byrd talk truthfully about the future of coal in West Virginia. I hope Joe Manchin listens because we need NEW JOBS. The demand for coal is down and will continue to decline as more and more clean energy projects come on line.
    Coal River Mountain stands today, a symbol of choice for the future of WV and America. At this very moment it is an abundant forested mountain with clean water, fresh air-an incubator of life with a wind resource that can be harnessed to power more than 50,000 homes with electricity, provide permanent jobs and help lead America to true energy independence. If the WV DEP allows Massey Energy to advance with their planned mountaintop removal operations on Coal River Mountain it will be blasted into a pile of pulverized rock, poisoned water and tainted air-a tomb of death. We can stand and watch with our thumbs in our pockets or we can get up, stand up, and demand that this insanity go no further. Senator Byrd is correct. We can move forward and prosper or we can resist and be over run. We are not an island of our own. Americans everywhere are opposed to mountaintop removal. If we allow ourselves to cling to such an insane proposition we are in deep trouble.

  2. WOW! It really is great to hear these words from our revered, elder statesmen. The coal industry has been running wild for years, stemming from the last White House Administration who refused to enforce the laws. Now it is time for the INDUSTRY to heed those laws. Sen. Byrd is speaking only the truth, and is encouraging us to adapt and evolve. Thank you Sir!

  3. Nanette says:

    Thank you Senator Byrd!!!!

    Finally a voice of reason. This is the leadership that our in-state politicians should have.

    I agree and add my AMEN to the previous commenters!

  4. Thomas Rodd says:

    I just posted a one-worder out of excitement at this remarkable statement by Senator Byrd.

    Upon a massive five minutes of reflection, I also want to express my appreciation for all the posters at Coal Tattoo who have been engaged in dialogue about these important issues over the past eleven months — and to Ken Ward (who we all never want to get too big of a head about this stuff.)

    I believe that the dialogue on this blog has, in its own small way, contributed to a climate in West Virginia that has helped Senator Byrd and his staff to issue such a nuanced, visionary statement.

    Thanks, everyone, for bringing your good game to this blog and these issues — and for making a difference!

  5. roselle says:

    I think we can also thank Don Blankenship for this. He is making the entire coal industry look bad not to mention the State of West Virginia and its political leaders. The Senator may be ready to throw him under the bus.

  6. Contrarian says:

    New report says there are more jobs created per “clean” megawatt than “dirty” megawatt:

  7. Clem Guttata says:

    This is a major turning point.

    Sen. Byrd lays out the issues in a way that has been sorely lacking from W.Va. political leadership. While I don’t agree with him on some of the solutions–I’m not optimistic about carbon capture/storage or most bio-fuels–those are the kinds of detail that can be rationally discussed now that we’ve agreed on the “lay of the land.”

    This part is a strong statement on his part:

    “As your United States Senator, I must represent the opinions and the best interests of the entire Mountain State, not just those of coal operators and southern coalfield residents who may be strident supporters of mountaintop removal mining.”

    How does it square with the agreement several weeks back for Gov. Manchin, Reps. Capito and Rahall to speak with ‘one voice’ on coal issues?

    For anyone interested… the text as released by Byrd’s office includes some hyperlinked text in it… you can find a version with the links here:

  8. Gary Anderson says:

    Thank you Senator Byrd:

    You are truly a voice of reason and make us proud that you are our Senator, keep up the “Great Work”.

  9. scott 14 says:

    This doesnt much matter, next year bird is up for re election and Manchin is a soo in for his seat. As I have said before Coal and surface mining isnt going anywhere.

  10. Ken Ward Jr. says:

    Sorry Scott 14 … that’s not correct.

    Sen. Byrd (not Bird) last won re-election in 2006. U.S. Senators server six-year terms. So Sen. Byrd would not have to run again until 2012.

    In addition, if you actually read Sen. Byrd’s statement, he agrees with you that coal isn’t going anywhere. In fact, I don’t think he advocates banning surface mining, either. Instead, he simply says there are problems with both the mining and burning of coal, and he advocates a “middle ground” that would deal with those problems.


  11. Ken Ward Jr. says:

    Here’s a link to Paul Nyden’s Gazette story on Sen. Byrd’s statement:


  12. Nanette says:

    Thanks Ken for this blog, I want to echo Mr. Rodd’s statement that this blog is a place where there is good dialog about all aspects of coal. I also believe that this blog is read by our people who are out of state, residents and government folks, and they know what is going here, boots on the ground locally by reading this blog. I truly believe that it is making a big difference!

  13. Red Desert says:

    Is anyone else trying to picture “coal embracing the future”?

  14. Ken Ward Jr. says:

    Red Desert,

    Make note of what Byrd said here:

    Major coal-fired power plants and coal operators operating in West Virginia have wisely already embraced this reality, and are making significant investments to prepare.


  15. Engineer says:

    What does everyone think mountain top removal mining is? What do you all consider it to be?

    In everyone’s efforts to stop it, you don’t realize that it has effected every kind of coal mining operation in Appalachia? It has brought 404 permitting to a standstill.

    To quote Mr. Byrd. “We have our work cut out for us in finding a prudent and profitable middle ground – but we will not reach it by using fear mongering, grandstanding and outrage as a strategy”. Who on here is willing to meet in the middle?

  16. Clem Guttata says:

    Sen. Byrd said it is time to speak “the truth… the whole truth” about coal in West Virginia. Is he ready to discuss all the truths about CCS, MTR, and the not-as-pretty parts of coal’s legacy?

  17. robbe says:

    Thanks be for Sen. Byrd’s wise words and leadership on these crucial issues!!! NOW, how do we get the rest of our elected officials to embrace the truth he speaks?

  18. Nanette says:

    That is a good question robbe. In my mind I just don’t see it ever happening unless they all have some sort of miraculous epiphany.

    Wasn’t Chafin the one who said that Rockefeller should hold up health care until the EPA falls to it’s knees to coal? I think it was
    Chafin, if I am wrong about that I apologize, I know Ken had a story about that awhile back. With people like him in office we will never see a new day and a new way in WV.

  19. Nanette says:

    I was correct, I went back and looked. It was Truman Chafin that came up with that horrible comment about holding up health care for millions of people over the mining permits. I imagine he is one of the people that Byrd was referring to in his letter.

  20. blue canary says:

    It’s about time a politician showed some leadership on this issue! Like so many have said in these comments, we MUST prepare for the future!! Coal demand is down, and will continue to fall as we learn to use cleaner fuels and use them more efficiently. I only wish more of our elected leaders would stand up and tell the coal industry – and the coalfields – to get ready for what’s next. If Appalachia is left behind again, our politicians will be to blame for taking coal money and then twiddling their thumbs while the rest of the country builds a greener economy.

  21. Dave Cooper says:

    Thank you Sen. Byrd.

    I am glad that at least one West Virginia leader has acknowledged what has been obvious to those of us opposing mountaintop removal – the voices of the pro-coal leaders and Walker CAT in particular have become excessively shrill, strident, harsh and – in my opinion – have been encouraging violence against the environmentalists all summer.

    I think that Sen. Byrds statement is of the highest importance and significance – and hopefully it will quell some of the troubled waters in the West Virginia coalfields – and perhaps even the West Virginia Chamber of Commerce will be able to step back from their absurd call to halt progress on health care reform and look rationally at the issue of MTR.

    The last time Sen Byrd made a statement (about March Fork School) Sen Rockefeller and Rep. Rahall immediately chimed in with their comments about the issue. I guess we are still waiting to hear from Gov. Manchin….

  22. I’m very encouraged by the tone Sen. Byrd’s statement. I remain hopeful for the future of the economy, people and mountains of West Virginia.

    To have a politician model level-headed thinking, is a beautiful thing. Thank you Sen. Byrd. Like Dave, I’m also interested to hear what other West Virginian politicians have to say.


  23. Nanette says:

    Dave, don’t hold your breath on Manchin joining Senator Byrd’s call. You will turn purple and pass out. In my mind’s eye I can see Manchin absolutely seething about what Senator Byrd said.

    I would love for someone in the media to ask Manchin to comment on Byrd’s statement………Ken??

  24. scott 14 says:

    I wonder just who on birds staff wrote this editorial. It certainly wasnt him. He can hardly speak let alone dictate a long paper.

  25. Ken Ward Jr. says:

    Scott 14,

    First, stop spelling the Senator’s name wrong … that is, if you’re doing it on purpose.

    Second, it is not uncommon for staffers for public officials to have staffers write speeches or statements … that’s what staffers are for.

    Third, if you had bothered to read the post, you would see that there’s an audio link there of Sen. Byrd delivering this statement.

    You really undercut your arguments in favor of industry when you post nonsense like this.


  26. Red Desert says:

    Dropped commas, isn’t for are not, doesnt for doesn’t, Coal for coal, Byrd’s for birds, soo in for who the heck the knows; perhaps it’s Scott who needs a staffer. (There are days that I could use one too! Insert light-hearted emoticon here.)

  27. Malen Johnson says:

    go ahead , shut it all down , and like me thousands of people who are tied to coal directley or indirectly will be without a job. there are people who are paid a payday that comes from mining who never steps a foot on min sites . they do service for them , and there are several thousands of them . just because you don’t work or have anything to do with mining doesn’t mean you will not be affected by it. when you have to travel 2 hours to a gas station or a groceary store because everything around you has closed then you will realize. I live in southern w.v. and i can tell you that about 65 percent of the people here are somehow somwhere linked and paid weekly by coal. now there is not enough work in the state now to emploee people. do you honestly think that it will survive with 65 percent of its population gone because they had to leave to find work and who knows there whole family might go with them too. If you had a buissness and you lost 65 percent of it , do you think you could carry on? so draw you a line across the state from one side to the other , about say charleston mid-way , and there might be a total of 35 percent of that part of the state you think there will be any buissness left for the treehuggers to go shopping or buy gas or ANYTHING ?????? tens of thousands of people will be left with nohting no home ,no job , no automobiles, and no credit to go somewhere else to try and pick up the shattered pieces of what use to be there life. but you don’t care about them ,me , or our life , you are TREEHUGGERS FOR LIFE right !!!

  28. MJ Fannon says:

    So you would rather work for a company that is destroying your home land, putting mercury, selenium, and other toxins in your water supply for a few more years before all the coal is gone, and they leave leaving you and all of the others you mention out of work living in a moonscape that will forever be uninhabitable, just so you can have a paycheck. Boy that seems kind of selfish to me, for the sake of a few dollars over a few years you want to work for an industry that is tearing down the mountains around you so that you can live in a plains state dust bowl when they are done, leaving behind the hundreds of coal slurrys that will leak or be damaged by some large storm, or even by the coal industry between now and then when the put a show on trying to make CCS work, but because they don’t seem to understand boundries like stream setbacks, you think they will stay away from blasiing near one of their CCS sites?
    A business has a fiduciary responsability to make a profit so they must do what they can to keep their costs down or their stock holders can sue them. The Government must also be the protectors of the people and the land to balance a company’s drive for profits.

    The coal industry will mine out the land and when they do they will leave you and everyone else you talk about, and as noted they will leave behind the destruction of the mountains, streams, rivers, hunting, fishing, and hiking areas, you will be left like WALL-E to clean up the detritus of a lost war.
    You speak the same misdirection the coal companies do, notice that when they lose a court battle after having threatned places with job losses that they keep on digging (unless stopped totally by the court). These are the tactics used in a battle, hyperbole in place of a sane and accurate argument, fear mongering of the masses. You know that some times change is a good thing, if they are shut down and a wind turbine farm replaced them before they do total destruction, you could keep your mountains as mountains and get a better paying job that pays more money in taxes to your local economies and employees more people in an industry that will not go away when the coal runs out or it is too expensive to mine.
    The coal companies have artifically kept the cost of coal competitive with other energy sources by passing their costs onto the citizens of Appalachia with the blessing of the State and Federal governments.
    All of those toxins will have lingering effects on the people born and raised in this area even if they are cleaned up, heavy metals never leave the body. And what do the coal companies do with their smokestack filtered waste material? Did you know that it contains more radioactive materials than a nuclear power plant is allowed to release yet the governement does not regulate the disposal of this byproduct, just that it must be kept out of the air…

  29. MJ Fannon says:

    Coal is not the “backbone” of our economy anymore! It has become the bane of our states economy, the Coal River Wind Project has proven that there are other “industries” that our state should be providing incentives similar to ones provided to the Coal Industry.

    And once the coal companies abandon their MTR sites without returning them to their approximate original contour as the law requires, and they get their permit deposit back from the WVDEP, who is going to; a) end up doing the environmental cleanup; b) pay for this cleanup; c) where will the toxin’s from the cleanup be stored or mitigated if that is even possible.

    The following section of Sen. Byrd’s speech makes me wonder what the real purpose of this speech was:

    “…to assist the coal industry in more easily transitioning to a lower-carbon economy. These include increasing funding for clean coal projects and easing emission standards and timelines, setting aside billions of dollars for coal plants that install new technology and continue using coal.”

    …easing emission standards and timelines,… What, now that our mountains are flat and dingy are we planning on blocking them from site with LA style smog? and we’re going to give the coal industry and coal burning industrial plants cash and tax benefits to do so, and for a longer period of time before they must conform to a law?

    And then this…

    …America’s first integrated carbon capture and sequestration project on a conventional coal-fired power plant in Mason County…

    How long do we think it will take the gas to find a way out of the ground? I cannot stop thinking of blowing up a balloon for one of my children today to see it flat and half empty tomorrow. I cannot believe anyone can consider this suggestion as anything but nonsense.

    Are all underground mines to be used as carbon sequestration holding tanks documented, or mapped so everyone knows where the gas is supposed to stay? Are these maps accurate and available to anyone who asks? Will future lessee’s of these parcels of land know to NOT mine or blast near them? Speaking of blasting how will the distance per charge size be determined? and who will make this decision?

    I just cannot believe anyone can consider this suggestion as anything but ridiculous!

  30. […] on December 3, there was another earthquake as Sen. Byrd declared “Coal must embrace the future.”  In a landmark speech that rattled the rafters of Congress and struck coal industry […]

  31. […] the EPA even pay attention to Sen. Robert Byrd’s admonition last month: “The greatest threats to the future of coal do not come from possible constraints […]

  32. […] the EPA even pay attention to Sen. Robert Byrd’s admonition last month: “The greatest threats to the future of coal do not come from possible constraints […]

  33. […] Sen. Byrd in his more recent statement that coal must “embrace the future“  urged the coal industry and its political supporters to tone things down: Scapegoating and […]

  34. […] don’t know if Sen. Robert C. Byrd was referring to this legislation or not when he recently said that mountaintop removal “has a diminishing constituency in Washington,” that there is […]

  35. […] a harsh criticism of the industry’s tactics, warning that the coal industry must “embrace the future,” but also chiding environmentalists who argue that coal-fired power can be eliminated […]

  36. […] industry, the question now is will  mine operators do as Sen. Robert C. Byrd suggested and “embrace the future,” by trying to do what Patriot Coal did at its Hobet 45 permit — work to come up with […]

  37. […] the significant developments — all pointing the coal industry toward “embracing the future” — ignored by Inhofe’s […]

  38. […] this fact. But Blankenship isn’t really among those in the industry who are jumping to “embrace the future,” of a carbon-constrained world or finding ways to further reduce the impacts of mountaintop […]

  39. […] During his press conference following the big coal executive summit, Manchin said the purpose of the meeting was to make sure West Virginia’s elected leaders speak “with one voice” to the Obama administration about coal.  Of course, it wasn’t long after that event that we heard a little different version of things from Sen. Robert C. Byrd, who encouraged the coal industry to “embrace the future.” […]

  40. […] had a piece on West Virginia Sen. Robert C. Byrd and his call for the coal industry to “embrace the future.”  In “Old Senator, New Tricks,” writer  Jesse Zwick concludes: Byrd’s […]

  41. […] become more interested recently in whether some coal industry lobby groups are acting as “honest brokers” in the discussion over CCS and what it’s role could or should be in dealing with […]

  42. […] addition, as I have pointed out in my op-ed of December 3, 2009 entitled ‘Coal Must Embrace the Future,’ West Virginia needs to have a seat at the negotiating table.  I am continuing to have […]

  43. […] doesn’t seem willing to step up — as Sen. Robert C. Byrd has done — and provide West Virginians with some honest talk about the tenuous future of the Central […]

  44. […] Folks like Rockefeller and Nick Rahall simply aren’t going to be able to out-pander the Republicans on coal issues. But maybe if they tried, they could out reason them, and help the state and the industry embrace the future. […]

  45. […] Robert C. Byrd has wisely encouraged the coal industry and the rest of West Virginia to “embrace the future” and to respect our state’s land and […]

  46. […] West Virginia’s remaining political leaders play? Will they, to paraphrase Sen. Byrd, “stick their heads in the sand” and continue to dispute the science and ignore the need to make meaningful reductions in […]

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