Coal Tattoo


The first thing I saw this morning when I opened my e-mail was a press release from my good friend, Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va. The headline blared out at me:

Rockefeller takes West Virginia Energy and Economy Concerns to the White House; Rockefeller is leading coal state senator in bipartisan energy meetings — keeps focus on West Virginia jobs and Economy.

Geesh. You would have thought Sen. Rockefeller was predicting Dewey would defeat Truman.

My buddy Darren Samuelsohn of Greenwire has a good account of the meeting, brought to us via The New York Times, describing the event as part of a last-ditch push to get a draft Senate energy and climate bill out by the start of the spring congressional recess March 23.

Rockefeller’s press release was predictably self-laudatory:

I was the only coal state Senator in the room and I made very clear to the president and my colleagues that what we need is an energy policy that protects West Virginians, creates jobs and stimulates the economy — and that means investing in clean coal technology.

OK … I get that. Sen. Rockefeller is for coal. And given that, it’s perfectly reasonable for him to take that message to his fellow Senators and to the White House.

But when I started Coal Tattoo a year ago, I wrote that there were two conversations going on about coal:

One of them is out there in the broader world. Scientists, policymakers and even investors are becoming more and more convinced that the downsides of coal have to be addressed. One way or the other, coal-fired power’s contribution to global warming must be dealt with. To these folks, the question is: Can coal have a place in our energy mix in a carbon-constrained world?

The other discussion is happening here in West Virginia, and in other coal communities. Locally, the issues are different, and in many ways much more emotional. It’s a battle between families who rely on coal to put food on their tables and send their kids to college, and folks who live near coal mines and are tired of blasting, dust, and water pollution. To these folks, the questions are: How can we protect coal’s future or how can we shut down mountaintop removal?

One of my goals with this blog was to try to connect these two threads a bit, to have a bigger and broader discussion about the future of our coalfield communities given the scientific realities about the need to do something about climate change.

I’m afraid that not many coalfield politicians share my interest in doing that … and from his rhetoric on the issue, I’m sure that Sen. Rockefeller isn’t one of them.

Why do I say that?

Well, read his whole press release about this White House meeting. Now, understand that many West Virginia media outlets will simply report this press release as is, without adding much context to it. And note that nowhere in the press release does Sen. Rockefeller say one thing about why legislation is needed to address climate change. He doesn’t explain that the world is indeed warming, that human activities (including burning coal) are largely responsible, or that absent some action to reduce emissions, the impacts are going to be largely negative for humans and our society.

Does Sen. Rockefeller believe those things?

Well, in seeking a delay in potential EPA regulation of greenhouse gases, Rockefeller took a more moderate step than Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski, whose bill would have much broader impact on EPA’s efforts.

But again, read the materials that Sen. Rockefeller’s office provided to the media, especially to local media in West Virginia. The “background” attached to the press release was nearly 500 words long, and the only thing it said about why climate change needs to be addressed was to quote very briefly from EPA’s endangerment finding.

And the reaction to Rockefeller’s bill?

The Daily Mail devoted the top of its front page to a Ry Rivard story that allowed Republicans to complain the legislation doesn’t go far enough. Ry threw some stuff in at the end quoting a World Resources Institute report about why the U.S. needs to act on climate change … but it was buried in the thrust of the piece.

And, the Wheeling paper is doing its best to paint Rep. Alan Mollohan as anti-coal, again because by supporting legislation identical to Rockfeller’s, he’s not taking a hard enough stance for coal.

So, the media is part of the problem here. No question about it.

Take today’s editorial in the Daily Mail, which asserts — and cites absolutely no evidence to support — that:

… The science about ‘global warming’ is anything but settled. The accuracy of climate research has been seriously questioned …

You have to wonder why the Daily Mail’s editorial writers don’t provide even one paragraph to back up such sweeping conclusions … could it be that when they do venture into commenting on the specifics of climate science they end up exposed as not really understanding the issue very well?

That’s what most folks who do understand the science have come to expect from local media in West Virginia, though.  My buddy at MetroNews, statewide radio host Hoppy Kercheval, for example, has apparently decided that Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship is a climate scientists — and he lets Blankenship say whatever he wants, without challenging him or bringing an actual scientist on the air to debunk him. (In Hoppy’s defense, the Gazette’s editorial page does much the same thing, regularly printing Blankenship’s letters to the editor, despite errors in the science. But at least the Gazette keeps publishing letters from other readers who debunk Blankenship).

The other thing about what the Daily Mail said is that it is simply wrong. Of course, the nature of science is that it is never, ever really totally “settled.” Scientists always keep studying, testing, learning, advancing what we humans know about our world.

But, despite all of the furor over the climate e-mails and mistakes in an IPCC report about how fast glaciers are melting, nothing has come out which really questions the key and consensus conclusions of the world’s scientific experts about global warming.

That doesn’t mean that the public isn’t greatly confused, or that coal and other fossil fuel interests aren’t taking advantage of some missteps by climate scientists to try to undermine public support for action on the issue. Living on Earth had a great piece about all of this last week that’s worth checking out.

Here in the coalfields, there’s no question that coal industry supporters are loving all of the coverage of  “ClimateGate” or whatever it’s being called now.  That’s all the more reason to wonder why some of the region’s more progressive political leaders don’t talk about the fact that the science still screams out for action.

That takes me back to this idea of two different conversations about coal issues. As I said, it’s understandable that Sen. Rockefeller wants to preach the importance of “clean coal” to other politicians in Washington. But if he and other West Virginia leaders want to win the battle of public opinion — rather than ceding these issues to Don Blankenship, Spike Maynard and the coal industry’s other voices for inaction — then they better start having a different conversation with their constituents, one that explains why the science is still sound and why action is needed.

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.