The 2010 election and the ‘war on coal’

November 1, 2010 by Ken Ward Jr.

As Tuesday’s election approaches, I went back last week and looked at an April 19 Washington Post story headlined Mine blast means new realities for West Virginia Democrats in Congress. It started out:

In southern West Virginia, it used to look as if three Democrats, who have served in Washington for a combined 115 years, had figured out the delicate, occasionally violent politics of Appalachian coal.

It used to.

Now, the underground explosion that killed 29 miners in Montcoal, W.Va., has only worsened the uncomfortable spotlight on the three: Rep. Nick J. Rahall II, Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV and Sen. Robert C. Byrd.

They were already being pulled in opposite directions by a Democratic White House and home-state interests, which had criticized administration policies on climate change and “mountaintop removal” mining. Now they are in the middle of a debate about whether the federal government let coal companies skirt safety rules.

The reactions have been as different as the men. Byrd, in Congress since 1953 and essentially untouchable, has become an unlikely critic of the industry he championed for decades. Rockefeller, first elected in 1984, has learned hard lessons about challenging coal. He has asked for patience during an investigation.

Rahall, elected in 1976, is facing a possible reelection fight against a close industry ally. His test in the next year will be whether the region’s old political dance — running for coal, but also against its worst attributes — can work when the issue is newly divisive in West Virginia and Washington.

Of course, since that story we lost Sen. Byrd, who had become such a powerful voice urging the coal industry to “embrace the future” and arguing that the industry must respect miners, the land, and the people of the West Virginia coalfields.

That left us with the race to fill Sen. Byrd’s seat, a negative ad-filled campaign between Gov. Joe Manchin and Republican John Raese.

Raese is one of those folks who prefers to stick his head in the sand and pretend global warming doesn’t exist.  On Friday, Raese had the U.S. Senate’s top climate change denier, Oklahoma Republican James Inhofe to campaign for him in Southern West Virginia.

But Gov. Manchin can’t really take advantage of  Raese’s stance on the issue, given his own campaign’s decision to resort to the violent image of the governor aiming at and shooting the defenseless cap-and-trade bill.  The governor went so far last week as to joke about this violent imagery in a campaign appearance in Princeton, according to The Hill:

Manchin also joked about his infamous campaign ad that showed him literally shooting a hole through the cap-and-trade bill.

“You know how I feel about cap and trade,” he told the crowd.

“I didn’t get it on the first shot,” Manchin joked. “I had a couple of practice shots, but I got it.”

The fine folks at panned Raese’s attacks that Manchin supports cap-and-trade. Still, the governor hasn’t offered anything in the way of a serious energy and climate plan, instead preferring to support the questionable idea of turning coal into liquid fuela move experts fear will generate even more greenhouse gas emissions.

Gov. Manchin’s campaign has also tried to argue that Mr. Raese would “eliminate all air and water standards,” but at the same time, the Manchin administration has joined with the coal industry to sue the federal government to end U.S. Environmental Protection Agency oversight of water pollution from the coal industry.

The Manchin campaign has also tried to go after John Raese on mine safety, but perhaps that would be a better tactic if the governor’s time in office didn’t include the Sago, Aracoma and Upper Big Branch disasters and if the state had done more to follow up on the governor’s order to improve inspections of underground coal mines.

And it’s worth noting (as we’ve reported before) that after Sago and Aracoma, but before Upper Big Branch, this was the sort of instruction the governor was giving to his environmental and mine safety regulators regarding coal industry violations:

Hey John, you’ve got a problem here, now before I write you up with a violation, here’s what I think you ought to do to fix it. Let’s get together, get our people together. I’ll come back in a week or a month or whatever the rotation time would be. Then if you’ve made those changes, tried to make the changes, we’re working in the right direction. Rather than going out with a ball bat and a cease and desist order and fines, I’d rather you spend the money to fix what’s wrong, try to make it safer, than give the money to government. I guarantee you we won’t fix it.

Some folks would argue at this point that Mountain Party candidate Jesse Johnson is the alternative — he opposes mountaintop removal and is the only candidate not resorting to trying to prove he’s more pro-coal than his opponents. But, Johnson’s performance in the only debate didn’t provide a real sense that he’s got much of a plan to deal with tough questions about coal’s future, only that he’s against the most damaging form of mining. For some anti-mountaintop removal voters, that’s enough, and none other than MetroNews commentator  Hoppy Kercheval has suggested Johnson might have a chance at costing Manchin the election. UPDATED: The Gazette’s Phil Kabler also notes the possibility that Johnson could play the spoiler in the Senate race.

It’s hard to know what to say about the congressional race in West Virginia’s 1st District, where both candidates proudly question whether global warming is anything to worry about.

Down in Southern West Virginia’s 3rd District, we’ve written before about how longtime Congressman Nick J. Rahall has allowed his Republican opponent, Spike Maynard, to drive him even further into what seems like almost an all-or-nothing coal industry camp (See previous posts here, here, here and here).

Congressman Rahall and his supporters have tried to inject some discussion of mine safety, and of Maynard’s ties to Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship into the campaign (see here, here and here).

But in some ways, the effort seems to illustrate precisely what the Post was talking about: Running for coal, but also against its worst attributes. And, the “war on coal” talk has gotten so bad that it has Rahall bragging that he’s blocked legislation to reduce strip mining’s impacts, and not talking at all about how EPA’s reviews of mining permits have produced projects that allowed coal to be mined, but with lesser impacts on the environment.

Rahall, who served on the conference committee that wrote the final version of the federal strip-mining law, now seems to not even recognize the damage and impacts coal does to the land and coalfield communities. And his campaign seems to want so much to distance itself from President Obama that it seldom mentions that the administration is making a major move toward eliminating black lung disease.

Things got about as bizarre as they could early last week, when West Virginia Democratic Party spokesman Derek Scarbro issued an e-mail attacking Raese for campaigning with Republican Sen. John McCain, citing McCain’s “anti-coal” record in favor of climate change legislation and against mountaintop removal. Scarbro’s release quoted state Democratic chairman Larry Puccio saying:

While Joe Manchin is suing the Obama administration to protect West Virginia miners’ ability to perform mountaintop removal, John Raese is out campaigning with the man who supported eliminating it altogether. This is yet another example of how out of touch John Raese is with West Virginia.

West Virginia’s coal communities have major issues to confront: How best to navigate a future that demands reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, what to do about the mounting scientific consensus that mountaintop removal is causing pervasive and irreversible damage to our environment, and the almost inevitable decline in Central Appalachian coal production, regardless of whether climate change and mountaintop removal bring new regulations.

But the region’s elections (I haven’t even mentioned coal’s impact on races in Virginia and Kentucky) have instead been driven by the industry’s allegation of a “war on coal” and by political leaders who are running for coal, but struggling to, to paraphrase the Post article, run against coal’s worst attributes.

This all leads me back to last week’s New York Times story, Navajos hope to shift from coal to wind and sun. Give it a read if you haven’t. It seems the Navajo Nation is having an election tomorrow, too, and coal is a big issue:

For decades, coal has been an economic lifeline for the Navajos, even as mining and power plant emissions dulled the blue skies and sullied the waters of their sprawling reservation.

But today there are stirrings of rebellion. Seeking to reverse years of environmental degradation and return to their traditional values, many Navajos are calling for a future built instead on solar farms, ecotourism and microbusinesses.

“At some point we have to wean ourselves,” Earl Tulley, a Navajo housing official, said of coal as he sat on the dirt floor of his family’s hogan, a traditional circular dwelling.

Mr. Tulley, who is running for vice president of the Navajo Nation in the Nov. 2 election, represents a growing movement among Navajos that embraces environmental healing and greater reliance on the sun and wind, abundant resources on a 17 million-acre reservation spanning Arizona, New Mexico and Utah.

“We need to look at the bigger picture of sustainable development,” said Mr. Tulley, the first environmentalist to run on a Navajo presidential ticket.

With nearly 300,000 members, the Navajo Nation is the country’s largest tribe, according to Census Bureau estimates, and it has the biggest reservation. Coal mines and coal-fired power plants on the reservation and on lands shared with the Hopi provide about 1,500 jobs and more than a third of the tribe’s annual operating budget, the largest source of revenue after government grants and taxes.

But like the Appalachian coalfields, the Navajo are challenged by the realities of climate change and by economics:

Tribal leaders say the Navajo Nation’s income from coal has dwindled 15 percent to 20 percent in recent years as federal and state pollution regulations have imposed costly restrictions and lessened the demand for mining.

Two coal mines on the reservation have shut down in the last five years. One of them, the Black Mesa mine, ceased operations because the owners of the power plant it fed in Laughlin, Nev., chose to close the plant in 2005 rather than spend $1.2 billion on retrofitting it to meet pollution controls required by the Environmental Protection Agency.

Early this month, the E.P.A. signaled that it would require an Arizona utility to install $717 million in emission controls at another site on the reservation, the Four Corners Power Plant in New Mexico, describing it as the highest emitter of nitrous oxide of any power plant in the nation. It is also weighing costly new rules for the Navajo Generating Station in Arizona.

And states that rely on Navajo coal, like California, are increasingly imposing greenhouse gas emissions standards and requiring renewable energy purchases, banning or restricting the use of coal for electricity.

So even as they seek higher royalties and new markets for their vast coal reserves, tribal officials say they are working to draft the tribe’s first comprehensive energy policy and are gradually turning to casinos, renewable energy projects and other sources for income.

But are the candidates there in a duel to the death over a “war on coal” … not if the Times story is any indication:

Both presidential candidates in the Navajo election have made the pursuit of cleaner energy a campaign theme, but significant hurdles remain, including that Indian tribes, as sovereign entities, are not eligible for tax credits that help finance renewable energy projects elsewhere.

And replacing coal revenue would not be easy. The mining jobs that remain, which pay union wages, are still precious on a reservation where unemployment is estimated at 50 percent to 60 percent.

… many Navajos see the waning of coal as inevitable and are already looking ahead … Mr. Yazzie, who lives with his wife, three children and two brothers, said he liked the idea. “Once Peabody takes all the coal out, it’ll be gone,” he said.

7 Responses to “The 2010 election and the ‘war on coal’”

  1. Dave Rao says:

    Another great piece of work, Ken. Thanks.

    As one of the thousand members of the Mountain Party, I was dismayed at the affiliation with the U. S. Greens. But, it was impossible for anyone to know where the extra thirty thousand votes Jesse secured for Governor came from in 2008. The left would be a good guess.

    This race could easily be West Virginia’s version of Flordia 2000. Al Gore only needed 537 votes. Nader got a fifth of million.

    I voted Giardinia, Jesse twice, Ken everyime and just voted for Joe because a vote for Jesse is two for Karl Rove.

  2. Thomas Rodd says:

    Morgantown lawyer Al Karlin, a great progressive, wrote a strong letter explaining why he is supporting Joe Manchin, even though Karlin has many disagreements with Manchin’s positions. I’m sure many Coal Tattoo readers have seen the letter; I don’t have a link.

    I appreciate what Dave Rao says and I agree with him.

  3. Micajah88 says:

    I fear that voting for any third party candidate will put Raese in the Senate.

  4. em2 says:

    To some people, myself included, this election is about a lot more than Coal . . with the understanding that this Blog is dedicated to coal stories. Yes Coal is important to this State and will be for some time (maybe debatable) . . BUT there are much larger issues as to what direction this State and Country will take over the next few years
    As with most politicians it is “Say Anything to Get Elected” . . . . in today’s election we have the benefit of seeing long position and voting histories from these candidates. So please do not let the rhetoric of who likes Coal more cloud good judgment on all our futures

  5. Joel says:

    Wow. I’m amazed that so many are chiming in with their support of Joe Manchin. Florida went to Bush not because of Nader, but because the Supreme Court ensured that Florida went to Bush. By the way, there were 10 other candidates in FL who got more than 537 votes in the election. More democrats in FL voted for Bush than voted for Nader. And the 537-vote differential is highly suspect anyway, considering how the votes in FL were or were not counted. So, people choose to vilify an American hero, Ralph Nader, for the 2000 election debacle? Shameful.

    A vote for Raese is a vote to put Raese in the Senate, and an endorsement of someone who willfully disagrees with facts. A vote for Manchin is an endorsement of business as usual and of the continuing rape of Appalachia via Mountaintop Removal Mining. A vote for Johnson is a vote in support of the issues which matter to West Virginians.

    How is it that folks who know how devastating MTR is, refuse to support the one candidate in the Senate race who is correct in opposing it?

    With all the talk of the balance of power in the Senate, many of the same progressives who thought that Obama would be coaxed more to the left, believe the same about Manchin. Here’s what people don’t seem to be talking about: Electing Manchin to the Senate will likely bring another “friend of Coal” (enemy of the environment and proponent of job-killing MTR) to the governor’s seat – Earl Ray Tomlin. And a Senator Johnson, independent in the Senate, would be courted by both Democrats and Republicans, and can truly be counted on to stand up for the citizens of WV. I couldn’t expect the same from either Manchin or Raese.

    Mr. Ward, I think you missed the message from Jesse Johnson about his future plans for the coal and post-coal economy: transition from burning coal to using coal as a manufacturing resource; end MTR and promote deep mining, which would vastly improve the environment and also increase jobs; shine a light on the fact that most coal in southern WV is metallurgical coal, which does nothing to “keep the lights on” in WV, but which is exported to China to support their manufacturing industry; put folks to work with good wages cleaning up the toxic waste sites that Big Coal has created; promote tourism to those who would rather come to a majestic mountain state than a desolate moonscape; and fight Big Coal’s depopulation plan with a plan to repopulate the coalfields.

    Let’s be done with this ridiculous “spoiler” conversation. Once West Virginians choose to vote for their best interests, they can have a Senator who will support these interests. Go Jesse!

  6. One Citizen says:

    There are those who, although they say they strongly disagree with Manchin on the major issues, will still hold their nose and vote for him.

    They’ll apparently do so despite Manchin’s record of putting deep miners in harm’s way by telling his safety inspectors to go easy. And despite attempting to put even more families into harm’s way by suing the EPA over enforcing regulations his own DEP refuse to enforce. And despite the fact that strip mining kills jobs by taking the miners out of the mines. And despite the fact that since surface mining was allowed to become prevalent by Coalocrats of both major political parties, the extraction of coal has cost the state far more than it plugs back in to our economy.

    There are those who have apparently caved to the use of blatant scare tactics, re-enforced by the results of push polls by Rasmussen and others which have been repeatedly published by the corporate-owned media. I can rightfully categorize these as push-polls because they routinely exclude of all but the major party candidates, and they do so for a reason. As such, these surveys may be likened to being offered the choice of either a rotten banana with needles in it or a wormy apple containing razor blades for your traditional Halloween treat.

    What I’m getting at here is that those who write the scripts of those polls are basically pushing that you’ll not vote at all, and eventually realize that West Virginia’s political climate is so corrupted that we’ll all pack up and move off their sponsors’ precious coal.

    These pollsters exclude Jesse Johnson and the Mountain Party mainly because they operate subtly in complete collusion with those who ultimately push that propaganda.

    Most folks likely don’t realize how much power advertisers ultimately have in what’s being offered by the media to the public, at least here in West Virginia. For instance the Charleston Gazette editorial board completely excluded Johnson any interview before choosing to endorse Manchin. This is notable mainly because every time Johnson has run for office in the past, they have always interviewed him.

    On the other hand the Charleston Daily Mail did call him and set an appointment for him to come in, but at the last minute the editorial board excluded him from being interviewed in the same room at the same time as Manchin and Raese. Instead he was diverted to be briefly interviewed by a cub reporter on a different floor of the same building at the same time. When Johnson pressed for why he’d been excluded, a major longstanding editor told him that it was because their advertisers didn’t want him to be included!

    This type of purposeful exclusion has come at a heavy price to Johnson’s campaign, especially since (to his credit) he has elected to take the high road and accept no corporate funding whatsoever. So while Raese and Manchin spend millions over trivialities like that “hick” ad and who is most likely to rubberstamp Obama, neither have ever been pinned down by the media about how devastating the unregulated practices of surface mining and deep mining are to the people of West Virginia.

    Even those conducting the one short “debate” on public television avoided those controversies, while choosing instead to allow Manchin and Raese the bulk of that short air time to try to distance themselves from each other and keep Johnson from getting his solutions across to the public.

    Apparently Mr. Ward didn’t notice how brief that debate was, or how by comparison how little Johnson was allowed to speak.

    The plain fact is that if Manchin loses, it’s on him and not Johnson because Manchin has untold wealth backing him. And while the Democrats rail in the major national media about how the U.S. Chamber of Commerce is funneling money into right-wing campaigns from other countries, the Coalocrats and their coal-powered media here are completely mute. Because the fact is that Manchin was the first of the very few Democrats that the U.S. Chamber chose to endorse!

    The bottom line is that Manchin and Raese are two sides of the same company scrip, at least according to statistician Nate Silver of the New York Times.

    Silver reported his assessment that of all the national candidates across the country, the stances on major issues of Manchin and Raese were by far the closest.

    Yet like Mr. Ward’s piece above, the average West Virginian never really gets to see it because the major local media never publishes it. Because with all due respect, Mr. Ward, publishing in a blog just ain’t the same as circulating facts the newspaper. Otherwise regulations would require the advertisement of surface mine permit hearings in your blog instead of the mighty Logan Banner, right?

    The Corporation for Enterprise Development (CFED) is a national nonprofit based in Washington, DC dedicated to expanding economic opportunity for low-income families and communities. Their scorecard has been ignored by the media, although it’s at odds with the assessment of the WV Chamber of Commerce. It’s probably because the CFED rated WV’s business climate with an F, and our local media really doesn’t care about the fact that during Manchin’s tenure as Governor more small businesses have either gone belly up or left WV than any other state.

    I wonder if the media decided to ignore this fact because Jesse Johnson has long publicly stated that he’s for campaign funding disclosure which is indirect conflict with the media’s in maintaining Manchin’s lucrative “business as usual” approach.

    An approach, by the way, which we’ll be doubly cursed with once Earl Ray Tomblin (D-Logan) becomes governor in the event that Manchin is elected.

    It’s no secret that Logan County’s education system has been seized by the state twice while he served as president of the senate in the statehouse. Which is quite a feat, considering that during that same period Logan County broke tonnage per man hour records extracting and exporting coal.

    All the while

    So in essence, while a vote for Johnson is a vote for the citizens of West Virginia, a vote for Manchin is really a vote for Earl Ray Tomblin and dramatically increased death rates across WV:

    “Pollution from mountaintop removal mining has been found to cause deformities and reproductive failure in downstream wildlife and has been associated with cancer clusters in communities exposed to high levels of coal mining activity. Mountaintop-removal coal mining has already destroyed more than 500 mountains, more than 1 million acres of hardwood forest, and more than 2,000 miles of streams in Appalachia.”

    The Center for Biological Diversity, October 2010

    Ken Hechler is a friend of mine. He chose to cross party lines and endorse Jesse Johnson because of his moral compass.

    Anyone who votes for Manchin out of fear instead of conviction is most likely not aware of all the facts. Don’t be played for a sucker just because you think Manchin will be any better than Raese once he goes to Washington. They’re both two sides of the same coal company scrip.

  7. Ken Ward Jr. says:

    One Citizen,

    Well, I can’t speak for the Logan Banner, and I don’t speak for the Gazette’s editorial board. But apparently, Coal Tattoo is important enough for you to take the time to write a nearly 1,200-word comment … We appreciate you reading and contributing your comments.

    Likewise, I don’t have a thing to do with the decisions about who is or isn’t endorsed by the newspaper where I work. I’m not on the editorial board and I’m not an editor. You should take those concerns and complaints up with those folks, not here on Coal Tattoo.

    But frankly, you lose a lot of credibility if you’re trying to make the argument that The Charleston Gazette hasn’t exposed the damage being done by mountaintop removal and that our news stories haven’t pointed out Gov. Manchin’s very strong support for that type of mining.

    In addition, some of the very things you mention are covered regularly in our paper and have been for years. Before I wrote about strip mining and mine safety, Paul Nyden did (and he still does). Show me a newspaper of our size that does as much serious investigative reporting about a powerful local industry as the Gazette does … They are few and far between, and I’m proud to work for one.

    You choose to boil down your view of the Gazette or the mainstream media into a one-issue question over what you view is inadequate or unfair coverage of one political candidate. That’s your right, and I welcome your comment. But folks who are more thoughtful on the issue know better — and appreciate the Gazette’s dedication to covering this issue well.

    Thanks again for your comment,

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