Coal Tattoo

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Lights on top of West Virginia’s Capitol dome were turned off this week in memory of Sen. Robert C. Byrd. (AP Photo/Jeff Gentner)

“Our lord we thank you for our senator who has left a tremendous legacy so that our mountains will continue to feel the gentle steps of those who love them, that his legacy will be our rolling hills and they will continue to hear the sound of mountain music.” — Brad Reed, W.Va. Army Guard Chaplain

That was part of the prayer offered last evening at the brief ceremony when Sen. Robert C. Byrd’s funeral procession reached the south steps of the state Capitol here in Charleston.

There’s been so much written and said about Sen. Byrd in the last week that perhaps it’s pointless to try to write or say much more. But while the words of that prayer could be read many ways (watch the whole thing on C-Span), they certainly got me thinking about the important unfinished business political leaders in West Virginia’s coalfields have before them in the wake of Sen. Byrd’s passing.

— First, Congress is still going around and around on a climate change/energy bill, and it’s hard to know exactly what direction that discussion is going. But what role will 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 coal’s greenhouse gas emissions?

The state’s best hope in this regard is probably Sen. Jay Rockefeller, whose role as chairman of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation puts him in a key role in the debate. While he’s insisted he doesn’t argue the science, Sen. Rockefeller has voted otherwise, and his public statements have indicated he’s very intent on not doing anything that someone like Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship might be able to attack as “anti-coal.”

Sen. Rockefeller was among those who attended a key White House meeting earlier this week about the energy and climate change issue, and this is what his office put out to describe his participation:

Senator Rockefeller did attend the White House meeting, which is part of the ongoing discussion about the future of energy legislation. Senator Rockefeller made clear to the President – as he has before – that, for him, energy discussions start and stop with the economy and jobs and he will not support any bill that hurts West Virginia families. He appreciates the ongoing dialogue with the White House and with his colleagues on both sides of this aisle on this important issue and believes these discussions will and should continue.

People file past the casket with Sen. Robert C. Byrd Thursday, July 1, 2010 Charleston, W.Va.  (AP Photo/Jeff Gentner)

— Next, there’s mountaintop removal … Gov. Joe Manchin’s Department of Environmental Protection has already hired outside lawyers in preparation for an expected lawsuit against the Obama administration’s efforts to curb the water quality damage done by large-scale surface mining across the region.

At the same time, environmental groups haven’t exactly indicated a willingness to negotiate  or compromise, given their very harsh criticism of EPA’s decision to approve a Logan County mountaintop removal permit where the impacts have already been greatly reduced.

Sen. Byrd was certainly right when he said we have our work cut out for us “in finding a prudent and profitable middle ground.”  It’s worth remember that Sen. Byrd’s recent comments on the coal industry were far from positioning himself for a ban on the practice, as most environmental groups advocate:

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.

— Then, there’s coal-mine safety … judging from recent events, the aftermath of the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster is turning increasingly into a battle between Massey Energy — with its PR firms and attorneys — and MSHA, led by the former safety director of Massey’s longtime enemy, the United Mine Workers of America union.

While there’s little question that there is much to criticize about Massey’s safety practices, it’s also clear that MSHA has much to answer for — but as best I’ve been able to tell, Sen. Byrd was the only one on the Democratic side of the aisle in Congress who seemed interested in exploring potential failings by Obama administration regulators.

Who now will ask Labor Secretary Hilda Solis and and MSHA chief Joe Main why they didn’t ask for more money to properly enforce the agency’s Pattern of Violations program?

— There’s the question of what West Virginia — and the rest of the Appalachian coalfields — will do when the coal is gone, or even when production almost inevitably plummets in the coming years … How will state and local governments pay for vital services? What will our communities do to provide jobs and put food on the table in the greener, carbon-constrained future that our planet must embrace?

In voting against the Murkowski resolution — in one of his last votes in the U.S. Senate, Sen. Byrd reminded us:

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.

— Finally, and almost certainly most importantly, there’s the basic issue of how we discuss these very issues — this unfinished business — among our fellow West Virginians.  Sen. Byrd encouraged all of us, and especially his fellow elected officials, to avoid the sharp rhetoric, divisive attacks and near-violent confrontations, and instead urged an open, honest discussion:

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.

In the second of his two major commentaries on coal, Sen. Byrd closed with this thought:

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.

President Obama, in his remarks today at Sen. Byrd’s memorial service, reminded us of  the senator’s hopes for all of us, for his fellow West Virginians, and of his belief that we could all grow, and learn and be better as human beings and as citizens of our wonderful state:

As I reflect on the full sweep of 92 years, it seems to me that his life bent toward justice. Robert Byrd possessed that quintessential American quality. That is a capacity to change, a capacity to learn. A capacity to listen, to be made more perfect.