Coal Tattoo

Can Sen. Rockefeller lead on global warming?

Gazette photo by Lawrence Pierce

The University of Charleston’s forum on CCS brought a rare bit of calm and reason into West Virginia’s ongoing discussions about the future of our coal industry.

It was impressive and refreshing to have the nation’s Nobel Prize-winning Energy Secretary, Steven Chu, on stage with longtime Sen. Jay Rockefeller, hashing out the importance of this technology if coal mining is going to continue in a carbon-constrained world. (See our Gazette print story on the event here)

Unfortunately, there was hardly any time at all for questions from the audience, and it was too bad that a bunch of folks from the industry front group America’s Power were trolling around in brand-name T-shirts as if it was their event.

During a very, very, very short question-and-answer session with the local media, I wondered if Secretary Chu was puzzled about why reporters kept asking him if coal miners should be afraid of the Obama administration or if CCS was going to put an end to coal mining:

Don’t fear the Obama administration … we’re trying to help not only West Virginia, but the rest of the country.

And Chu had to repeat this line about CCS at least twice before the local media seemed to understand what he was getting at:

It will save coal.

Who knows if Secretary Chu’s calm, somewhat geeky presentation — complete with PowerPoint, of course — will convince any of the business and industry leaders at yesterday’s event that global warming is real and that if they want coal to survive they better start working harder to make CCS work.

But the impression I remain left with is of Sen. Rockefeller essentially stealing the show. As I wrote for our print edition:

Speaking alongside Chu, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist, Rockefeller made perhaps his strongest statements to date in support of the scientific consensus that carbon dioxide emissions are changing the global climate in dangerous ways.

Rockfeller, chairman of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, also blasted industry leaders and members of West Virginia media who promote the notion that global warming isn’t real.

“I’m concerned that powerful voices in West Virginia continue to argue that climate change is a myth,” Rockefeller said. “I’m not on the same bandwagon that some of you are.”

The senator said that climate change skeptics are harming West Virginia by putting off efforts to perfect and deploy CCS, giving natural gas more time to cut into coal’s market and hurt mining’s long-term viability.

“Burying one’s head in the sand is not a solution, and can only backfire,” Rockefeller said.

Rockefeller explained that, while some in industry — and in the Congress — continue to pretend there’s a debate about whether global warming is real, Wall Street is convinced that greenhouse limits are coming, and is withholding funding for new coal-fired power plants until it gets some certainty about what those limits will look like.

Said the senator:

You talk to most power companies, you talk to most coal companies, they know there is something coming.

And he offered this:

I agree with the broad scientific consensus on climate change. I care deeply about the Earth. Greenhouse gas emissions are not healthy for our Earth or for her people, and we must take serious action to reduce them.

Sen. Rockefeller said he is “mystified” and “stunned” by major figures in West Virginia industry, media and political circles who continue to promote the idea that climate change isn’t real:

People think they are protecting coal by pretending climate change doesn’t exist. But burying one’s head in the sand is not a solution and can only backfire.

Denying the problem of climate change may feel good in the short term, but in the long term, it only locks in an existing infrastructure for other fuels like natural gas and will cost coal miners’ jobs.

Sen. Rockefeller also did something he’s rarely done before — he admitted there are many hurdles that CCS needs to clear before it’s ready to be deployed at hundreds — maybe thousands — of power plants across the nation and the globe. Though, he also said he’s convinced:

It’s doable, ladies and gentlemen. It’s doable. That’s called clean coal. That’s something we can live with.

This blog has been pretty tough on Sen. Rockefeller …  remember the previous posts on this topic here, here and here, just for a few examples.  To his credit, Sen. Rockefeller’s comments yesterday were absent the sorts of inaccuracies and blatant booster-ism that Coal Tattoo has tried to call him on in recent months. Several environmentalists who have been very concerned about Sen. Rockefeller’s growing antagonism toward greenhouse gas legislation commented to me last evening about how pleased they were with his remarks at the UC forum.

Then again, Sen. Rockefeller also made it very clear once again that he’s nowhere near ready to support a broad climate and energy bill that would actually cap greenhouse gas emissions:

To be clear, I’m not talking about cap-and-trade. That is a debate for another day.

Instead, Sen. Rockefeller will continue pushing his own legislation to block for two years any U.S. EPA regulation of greenhouse gas emissions from power plants and his separate bill to pump more money into CCS research and deployment.

The problem here, of course, is that most experts believe that some sort of broader climate legislation is needed in order to nudge the power industry toward deploying CCS in the scale needed to make any difference for the planet. As the Obama administration’s CCS task force put it:

The lack of comprehensive climate change legislation is the key barrier to CCS deployment.

Most of Sen. Rockefeller’s statements yesterday were a big step toward him filling the void on this issue left by the death of Sen. Robert C. Byrd. But we’ve yet to hear much progressive talk from Sen. Rockefeller about mountaintop removal or about the inevitable decline in central Appalachian coal production — and we’re still waiting to see the senator embrace the kind of climate legislation that he must know is needed to really make CCS a reality.

Stay tuned …