Coal Tattoo

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West Virginia senatorial candidates Republican John Raese, left, Mountain Party candidate Jesse Johnson, second from left, and Constitutional Party candidate Jeff Becker, listen to West Virginia Governor Joe Manchin, right, speak during a Senate debate in the studios of West Virginia Public Broadcasting in Morgantown, W.Va. on Monday, Oct. 18, 2010. (AP photo/David Smith)

Last evening’s discussion — it wasn’t really a “debate” — among the candidates to fill the U.S. Senate seat long held by Robert C. Byrd pretty much fell in line with the scripts from the two major candidates, Gov. Joe Manchin and Republican industrialist John Raese. See coverage from The Associated Press here and West Virginia Public Broadcasting here. And here’s a link where you can watch the whole thing on C-Span.

There was some discussion of coal issues, and in one instance what seemed like a pretty interesting response from Gov. Manchin when the AP’s Larry Messina asked what Manchin would do in the Senate regarding mine safety issues.

Now, you might have thought that the Democratic candidate for Senate would have offered even the least bit of support for the mine safety reform bill that has passed a key House committee and is pending in the United States Senate. After all, the measure was introduced by W.Va. Democratic Sens. Jay Rockefeller and Carte Goodwin, and it’s named for Sen. Byrd.

Gov. Manchin had a chance to make clear the distinction between blindly supporting whatever the coal industry wants and backing reasonable measures to improve the lives of the folks who mine the coal and live in coalfield communities … Democrats have tried to get this bill moving, only to have their efforts blocked by the Republicans in the Senate.

But remember that Gov. Manchin has allowed his mine safety office to delay implementing a key portion of the executive order he issued — calling for immediate inspections and coal-dust sampling in all W.Va. underground mines — just after the Upper Big Branch Mine disaster. And, the governor has not moved on recommendations for reform legislation on the state level that were submitted to his office by his special investigator, Davitt McAteer, and other safety advocates.

In response to Larry Messina’s question, Gov. Manchin stuck to his position — that he wouldn’t be proposing any changes in state law or regulations until after all of the investigations of Upper Big Branch are complete.

Oddly, though, the governor also seemed to suggest that this was the way things were handled on the state and federal levels back in 2006 — when the record is clear that both the state Legislature (at Manchin’s behest) and Congress acted on new safety legislation before the investigations of Sago, Aracoma, and Kentucky Darby were completed. In fact, Gov. Manchin had repeatedly made a point of bragging that West Virginia moved before the feds did four years ago and he made a trip to Washington just after Aracoma to push Congress to act (See previous links here, here and here).

John Raese offered a similar answer, saying there’s no rush to pass any reforms and that legislation could wait until all of the investigations are completed:

We have to wait until all studies are in until we can really form the plan of attack.”

Raese also complained that “federal bureaucrats” have never asked him or his company what they believe should or could be done to improve mine safety … which was an odd comment, given that the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration asks the mining industry for input all of the time, and Raese’s Greer Industries often provides it, as the company did in 2006 when MSHA was trying to increase penalties for serious safety and health violations. Oddly enough, Greer submitted this letter opposing the changes:

MSHA believes that the key to increased safety and health to our nation’s miners is through increased enforcement activities and penalties. This simply is not the case.

OK, now back at the debate, here was the spot that my friends who are backing Jesse Johnson must have been thinking their candidate was going to jump in and take on the coal industry and the unwillingness of both major political parties to properly regulate it.

And Jesse did start to do that … he said:

What we really have to  look at is proper application of regulations and that’s not being proffered right now on the state or federal level

But then, he continued that sentence this way:

… Or we wouldn’t be having a situation looking to the EPA to enforce our laws.

Giving him the benefit of the doubt, I’m sure Jesse knows that it’s MSHA in the Department of Labor that regulates mine safety. Perhaps he was just trying to make the point that if the state properly policed the coal industry in the first place, we wouldn’t see EPA coming in on strip-mining water enforcement and permitting issues. But, that sort of comment ignores the fact that MSHA has a legal duty to inspect coal mines and enforce federal safety laws that has nothing at all to do with what the state is or isn’t doing … the legal setup regarding federal mine safety authority is completely different from that with environmental enforcement and permitting — MSHA has dual authority and does not delegate that authority to the states under any circumstances.

And then, Jesse really left me shaking my head with this follow-up comment:

Deep mining is safe as long as it is done properly. We have proved that here in West Virginia and around the world for years.

I’m not sure where exactly in West Virginia, the United States, or around the world he’s talking about … I’d be interested to know.

Jesse, the Mountain Party candidate, did repeat his very clear and unequivocal opposition to mountaintop removal coal mining. But then he went on a bit of a tangent about his idea that while “coal mining is essential to West Virginia,” the goal should be not to burn it for energy, but use it to manufacture all sorts of carbon-based products to create “a new coal economy based on carbon.”

I haven’t heard Jesse’s supporters talking much about this particular part of his platform, and I’m interested in what Coal Tattoo readers make of this … comments?

Probably the closest the candidates came to discussion some of the key issues facing West Virginia’s coal industry — such as the projected declined in Central Appalachian production over the next decade and beyond — was Gov. Manchin’s very, very brief remark that “coal is in this transition period” that might last 30 to 50 years. But the governor, in his zeal to emphasize “coal will be a mainstay for many, many years to come” didn’t articulate much of a plan for easing this transition and its potential impacts on coalfield economies.

John Raese, of course, cited the standard industry line that we don’t need to worry about “peak coal” because we’ve got 200 years of the stuff left in the ground … it’s unfortunate that he wasn’t really challenged on that statement.

But then again, none of the other candidates or the panelists or moderators challenged Raese on his statements about what he insists is the “myth” of global warming. Raese made some kind of remark about how there’s so much carbon dioxide emitted by the oceans compared to what humans emit from industry that there’s simply no way humans could be impacting the global climate system. We’ve been through this whole carbon cycle thing before with Raese’s fellow Republican, Shelley Moore Capito, so I won’t belabor the point.

Raese says the fact that he doesn’t believe in global warming “differentiates” him from the other candidates in this race … he doesn’t mention that it also differentiates him from the vast majority of the world’s scientific experts on the subject.