Coal Tattoo

If you read the text or media reports of  West Virginia Sen. Jay Rockefeller’s speech last week on the Murkowski resolution — the one to overturn EPA’s finding that greenhouse emissions are a threat to public health and welfare — you might have missed some interesting comments.

I’ve already blogged about Sen. Rockefeller’s misstatement about the size and effectiveness of American Electric Power’s test carbon capture project at its Mountaineer Plant in Mason County, W.Va.

But here’s something else interesting that Sen. Rockfeller said in his floor speech:

The fact is that we in West Virginia know and embrace what too many others either don’t understand or will not choose to see. Which is our nation is dependent on coal for more than 50 percent of its electricity today and nothing is going to change that fact. All of the renewables in the world are not going to change that fact.

Here’s the video of his speech, including those statements:

There’s just one little problem … coal no longer provides “more than 50 percent” of our nation’s electricity. It hasn’t since 2004, according to this data from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Energy Information Administration.

Coal’s share has dropped every year since 1997, and is now down to 44.6 percent. It has dropped more than seven percentage points since 1996.  As Sen. Robert C. Byrd said in voting against the Murkowski resolution:

In 2009, American power companies generated less of their electricity from coal than they have at any other time in recent memory.

So while Sen. Rockefeller told fellow senators (and anybody else watching on C-Span) that “nothing is going to change the fact” that coal provides more than half our nation’s electricity, that “fact” has, in fact, already changed.

I’ve been round and round with Sen. Rockefeller’s press office about this, and as best I can understand, that line about “nothing is going to change that fact” was not in the senator’s prepared remarks, and it isn’t on the final version of his speech posted on the Senate Web site.  Instead, here’s what is posted there today:

The fact is that we in West Virginia know and embrace what too many others either don’t understand or don’t want to see — which is that our nation is dependent on coal for more than 50 percent of its electricity today.

And even if the country achieves maximum success for all the new ideas on the table for new green energy, our American quality of life – and the rapid rise of energy needs around the globe — will drive the same or greater need for coal for many generations to come. Coal mining is hard, dangerous, and very proud work. It turns the lights on all across America.

Rebecca Gale, a spokeswoman for the senator, explained the issue this way:

In the remarks as prepared for delivery, staff should have included “nearly 50 percent” instead of “over 50 percent”. In the past, Senator Rockefeller has said nearly 50 percent of our country’s electricity relies on coal.

Am I making too much over what might just be a little mistake in one floor speech? Probably so. But the way our political leaders frame issues about coal in West Virginia is important. The truth is, there are plenty of indications that coal isn’t going away — much as some folks would like it to — anytime real soon, especially in China, India and other parts of the developing world.

But there are also major questions:

Central Appalachian coal production — meaning Southern West Virginia — is on course for an inevitable major decline, regardless of whether Congress limits greenhouse gas emissions or EPA restricts mountaintop removal.  Even in the vast coalfields of the Powder River Basin, peak coal may be coming sooner than we think.  New National Academy of Sciences studies show the need for urgent action on climate change. Peer-reviewed scientific research shows mountaintop removal’s impacts are pervasive and irreversible. And what more clear proof of coal’s burden on mining families do we need but the 29 workers who died at Upper Big Branch?

Sen. Rockefeller has spoken out on mine safety issues, and called for corporate reform to bring more accountability.  And it would be nice to take him at his word when he says he doesn’t question the science of climate change, but he just voted for a resolution that does just that.

In response to my questions about these sorts of issues, Sen. Rockefeller’s office issued this statement:

Senator Rockefeller believes that coal will have, and has always had, an integral role to play in our country’s energy future, and he does not think this is going to change anytime soon. Senator Rockefeller is always fighting to make sure West Virginia has a strong voice at the table in energy discussions and that the interests of our economy, manufacturing industries and workers are protected as is the environment, health and safety. The Senator does not believe we can leave the fate of West Virginia’s future in the hands of the Environmental Protection Agency.

Our state’s senior senator, Sen. Byrd, has taken a different route on these issues, and his statement on the Murkowski resolution offered important warnings for West Virginians to consider:

As I have said before, to deny the mounting science of climate change is to stick our heads in the sand and say “deal me out” of the future. But we have also allowed ourselves to ignore other realities. It is a simple fact that the costs of producing and consuming Central Appalachian coal continue to rise rapidly. Older coal-fired powerplants are being closed down, and they appear unlikely to be replaced by new coal plants unless we very soon adopt several major changes in federal energy policy.

In the last month alone, two major power companies have reportedly announced that they will idle or permanently close over a dozen coal-fired powerplant units that have consumed millions of tons of West Virginia coal in recent years. Moreover, an even larger portion of America’s aging fleet of coal-fired power plants could be at risk of being permanently closed in the coming years–and the ability to sell coal in those markets could be lost for an indefinite period, if there is no new Federal energy policy to support the construction of new coal plants.

Sen. Byrd seems to want to talk more bluntly to West Virginians, spelling out all we have to confront. Sometimes other political leaders seem intent on convincing us that some other coal boom is just around the corner, if we can just hold off EPA or the White House or those troublesome environmentalists.

It’s a scary time for many people on all sides of these issues. A recent Coal Tattoo comments thread illustrated that pretty clearly.

As Gazette editor Jim Haught sometimes writes, I don’t know where these issues are heading or how it will all be resolved. But as I said, the way our leaders talk about the future is important … there are big issues to confront, and West Virginians might benefit from going forward with their eyes wide open.