Coal Tattoo

The 2010 election and the ‘war on coal’

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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 FactCheck.org 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.