Coal Tattoo

Remembering Sen. Robert C. Byrd

What does one say about someone who rose up from such humble beginnings to become one of the most powerful men in the country and the longest serving Senator in U.S. history?

Well, perhaps the most complimentary thing is to say that Sen. Robert C. Byrd was willing to grow, and change, and modify his views and positions as science, economics and so many other facts made it unwise not to do so.

President Obama nailed it, with a statement just issued, when he said this of  our Sen. Byrd:

He had the courage to stand firm in his principles, but also the courage to change over time.

And among the areas in which Sen. Byrd had the courage to change was his position and public statements regarding West Virginia’s powerful coal industry.

The nephew and son-in-law of a coal miners, Sen. Byrd was a longtime champion of miners and of the industry, working for tougher mine safety legislation and to moderate environmental laws and rules to protect coal workers.

Among environmentalists, Sen. Byrd developed a bad reputation. First, he championed a 1997 Senate resolution aimed at blocking action on greenhouse gas emissions.  And he led efforts by West Virginia’s congressional delegation to overturn Judge Haden’s 1999 ruling to limit mountaintop removal, at one point ridiculing environmental activists, saying:

These head-in-the-cloud individuals peddle dreams of an idyllic life among old-growth trees, but they seem ignorant of the fact that, without the mines, jobs will disappear, tables will go bare, schools will not have the revenue to teach our children, towns will not have the income to provide even basic services.

But as the urgency for action on climate change became more and more apparent, and as the science showing the harmful effects of mountaintop removal grew more clear, Sen. Byrd’s positions changed. And, as coal industry leaders and political figures seemed more intent on throwing gasoline on the fire, Sen. Byrd urged calm and reasonable debate.

About a year ago, Sen. Byrd sent his staff into the coalfields, on a fact-finding mission, and last December came out with his major statement, urging the coal industry to “Embrace the Future.”  Among his most important points? That change was coming to the West Virginia coalfields, regardless of what happens with cap-and-trade legislation and mountaintop removal restrictions:

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.

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.

And, Sen. Byrd told us:

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.

Later, after 29 miners died in the Upper Big Branch Mining Disaster, Sen. Byrd renewed his call, demanding that the coal industry respect miners, coalfield communities, and the land from which coal is mined:

The sovereignty of West Virginia must also be respected. The monolithic power of industry should never dominate our politics to the detriment of local communities. Our coal mining communities do not have to be marked by a lack of economic diversity and development that can potentially squelch the voice of the people. People living in coal communities deserve to have a free hand in managing their own local affairs and public policies without undue political pressure to submit to the desires of industry.

The old chestnut that “coal is West Virginia’s greatest natural resource” deserves revision. I believe that our people are West Virginia’s most valuable resource. We must demand to be treated as such.

Not surprisingly, such words weren’t greeted warmly by the coal industry or by most of our state’s political leaders. The folks at the West Virginia Red blog opined after Sen. Byrd’s December statement:

The facts of the matter are clear. Senator Robert Byrd has run his last campaign. It’s very unlikely he will be here in 5 years or 10 years. West Virginia will still be mining coal in that time. Heck, Senator Byrd may not be here in 5 months much less any longer.

Gov. Manchin repeatedly challenged Sen. Byrd’s statements on coal, demanding that the Senator explain himself:

I want to know if he’s against mountaintop removal completely or if he just wants to modify it. I want to make sure we’re still on the same page. If we have some clarification, it will help all of us.

Still, when it seemed convenient, some political leaders would jump on Sen. Byrd’s bandwagon, such as when the Senator took on Massey Energy President Don Blankenship over the potential safety threats to the kids at Marsh Fork Elementary School. I don’t recall hearing much out of Sen. Rockefeller or Rep. Rahall on this until Sen. Byrd spoke up.

One of Sen. Byrd’s last votes in the U.S. Senate was one in which he split very clearly with Sen. Rockefeller, opposing a GOP-promoted resolution to overturn the EPA’s scientific finding that greenhouse gases are a threat to public health and welfare.

West Virginians will mourn now, and political leaders are going to be saying a lot nice things about the legendary Sen. Byrd. You have to wonder if any of them are going to go back and take a look at things that Sen. Byrd was saying about our state’s future … things like this:

There is no doubt that the West Virginia coal industry and many West Virginia workers have been dealt a difficult hand over the past ten years, and are indeed facing some uncertainty about their futures.

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

Some companies may feel that it is helpful for Congress to go on denouncing a new energy policy that makes it once more attractive to build new coal plants. But those companies are taking this opportunity to invest in natural gas, or other types of investments. They are not thinking about fighting for the longer term future of coal jobs and other jobs in West Virginia. I am. In the meantime, what happens to the miners, other workers, local governments, and many West Virginia citizens during the course of further delay on a new energy bill? They continue to be laid off, and to struggle with insufficient revenue, and to remain frustrated about their uncertain future.

… For the sake of West Virginia’s best interests, and the vital longer-term interests of our Nation and our world, the Senate must now move promptly to take responsible, decisive, and effective action on a moderate but major new energy policy.