Coal Tattoo

This week’s Sunday Gazette-Mail gave readers a couple of, well, interesting opinion pieces regarding the coal industry, air pollution and the upcoming general election.

First, there was a piece by WVU mining engineering professor Syd Peng called “Congress should block EPA,”  which detailed Peng’s belief that federal regulators should not limit greenhouse gas emissions or take further actions to reduce harmful, smog-causing pollution from coal-fired power plants.

If a mining engineering professor wants to take that position, that’s fine.  But perhaps Peng should have consulted with some colleagues at the WVU College of Law before he wrote this:

Besides, there is no justification for EPA to regulate greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act. That landmark law was not designed to address greenhouse emissions. Let Congress address climate change with new legislation.

If he had, Peng might have learned about the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case, Massachusetts v. EPA, in which the justices decided in 2007 that EPA in fact does have authority under the Clean Air Act to regulate greenhouse gas emissions. In fact, the Court specifically found that:

… Greenhouse gases fit well within the Clean Air Act’s capacious definition of air pollutant.

Peng goes on to opine about the EPA proposal to further tighten regulations on air pollution that contributes to smog, writing:

What EPA’s rule-setting lacks is common sense. Once again, EPA has failed to consider the economic burden of its actions. The new rules will stifle existing businesses, discourage construction, and reduce energy and manufacturing production.

A study done by the Manufacturers Alliance estimates that the annual cost of achieving the more stringent ozone standard — 60 parts per billion instead of 75 parts per billion — would reach $1 trillion in 2020 and continue through 2030. That would be equivalent to 5.4 percent of the gross domestic product in 2020. The standard would adversely affect the entire economy, manufacturing in particular. Job losses would total 7.3 million in 2020, including 8,639 jobs lost in West Virginia.

Again, Peng could have benefited from a talk with some of WVU’s fine environmental law faculty … because the courts and Congress have made clear that EPA is required to set national ambient air quality standards at levels necessary to protect the public health and welfare, without considering the economic costs of implementing the standards.

And that aside, Peng makes no mention of the public health benefits of further reducing smog. In fact, EPA studies show that, while the annual costs of its proposed smog changes would be between $19 billion and $90 billion per year in 2020, the agency also estimates the positive health benefits as ranging from $13 billion to $100 billion a year by 2020.

Then, we also had an op-ed from International Coal Group General Counsel (and Coal Tattoo reader) Roger Nicholson, Coal state incumbents must protect coal jobs to keep their seats, which concludes:

The message is clear: those of us in the coal industry must fight for our jobs, just as career politicians fight for theirs. Those in office can keep those jobs by listening and standing up with courage and frankness to fight for their constituents’ livelihoods with the same tenacity as they defend their own seat of power.

Roger is also entitled to whatever opinion he wants to take. But this particular op-ed was disappointing in the way it selectively presented facts.

For example, Roger wrote:

When campaigning, President Obama openly threatened to bankrupt the coal industry.

Of course, anyone who wants to know the whole truth knows that Roger is taking then-candidate Obama’s comments greatly out of context. We wrote about this at the time (includes transcript), back in November 2008, when Republican Vice Presidential candidate Sarah Palin was pitching this particular attack on Obama:

During a Jan. 17 interview with the Chronicle’s editorial board, an editorial writer noted that Obama co-sponsored a bill to encourage turning coal into liquid fuel for vehicles, an approach energy experts warn would likely create more greenhouse emissions than traditional gasoline. The editorial writer asked Obama how he squared his support for coal with the need to do something about climate change.

Obama responded that the country needs to “figure out how we can use coal without emitting greenhouse gases and carbon,” and that he believes a “cap-and-trade” emissions program is the best way to do that.

Such a program would put an overall ceiling on greenhouse gas emissions. Companies would need “allowances” from regulators for every ton of carbon dioxide their facilities pump into the atmosphere. Companies could reduce their emissions to meet the caps. Or they could buy or trade for “allowances” to keep using older facilities.

“That would create a market in which whatever technologies are out there being presented, whatever power plants are being built, they would have to meet the rigors of that market, and the ratcheted down caps that are imposed every year,” Obama told Chronicle editors. “So if somebody wants to build a coal power plant, they can, it’s just that it would bankrupt them because they’re going to be charged a huge sum for all that greenhouse gas that’s being emitted.”

During her Marietta appearance, Palin said only that Obama had said, “Sure, if the industry wants to build new coal-fired power plants, they can go ahead and try, but they can do it only in a way that will bankrupt the coal industry, and he’s comfortable letting that happen.”

Roger also singles out Congressman Nick Rahall, for not taking a strong enough stance against EPA’s “war on coal,” writing:

Instead, from Rep. Rahall, we hear silence … or the comment that “the EPA is simply doing its job.”

First, I’m not sure that Rep. Rahall ever used the exact phrase “EPA is simply doing its job.”  That was a headline on a Coal Tattoo post back in October 2009, but if you click through, you’ll see that it was from a Beckley Register-Herald story in which reporter Mannix Porterfield summarized Rahall’s comments with that paraphrase.

Second, as Roger well knows, Rep. Rahall has taken a far, far more critical stance with EPA since that Beckley story nearly a year ago, even repeatedly taking credit for stopping a bill that would ban mountaintop removal.

Finally, Roger also takes a shot at the United Mine Workers union:

Union leaders, who are essentially politicians, remain blind apologists for the Obama administration, much to the chagrin, I am sure, of their membership. Recently, Phil Smith of the UMW had the temerity to say that there is not an Obama-driven “war on coal,” and that “the many legal rulings that have come out regarding mining are driving much of what the EPA and others are doing.”


No court ruling has mandated that EPA should assert itself wholly and completely into the mine permitting process that had been delegated by Congress to the states and the Army Corps of Engineers, thus subsuming the balance of power carefully crafted by the legislative branch of government.

As Roger wrote, “Huh”?

Perhaps my good friend at International Coal Group has forgotten about U.S. District Judge Joseph R. Goodwin’s ruling that essentially forced the Obama administration to abandon streamlined permitting of mountaintop removal mines.  Maybe he isn’t thinking about rulings by U.S. District Judge Robert C. Chambers to require more public input into mountaintop removal permitting decisions and concluding that more thorough review of such permit applications are needed.

Did a judge specifically order EPA to come up with its procedure for more rigorous review of Army Corps of Engineers’ decisions to approve mountaintop removal Clean Water Act permits? No. But clearly citizen group lawsuits and the resulting court rulings have at least partly driven the administration’s crackdown on mountaintop removal.

There are real issues facing coal country this election … There’s the projections that Central Appalachian coal production will dramatically decline (with or without new regulations on greenhouse emissions and strip mining permits).  There are concerns about the health and safety of miners, given the resurgence of black lung disease and Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster.  There are the new findings that begin to for the first time calculate coal’s costs and benefits to the region, and questions about how to better model those numbers and how to force the industry to internalize more of its costs.

Of course, there is the need to find a way through the bitter debate on mountaintop removal — not to mention focusing efforts on what many experts might be coal’s only savior in a carbon-constrained word, carbon capture and sequestration technology.

The television ads, the op-eds and the candidate debates steer clear of these things, but aren’t they really the crucial issues that voters should demand that candidates talk about?