Coal Tattoo

A few months ago here on Coal Tattoo, I asked if  West Virginia Sen. Jay Rockefeller was up to the task of  helping the coal industry “embrace the future,” if Sen. Rockefeller could lead out state on dealing with the vital issue of global warming.

Anybody who read about the senator’s speech on Friday to the West Virginia Coal Association surely concludes that Rockefeller is trying in his own way to do those things.

But when Sen. Rockefeller tells coal association members he won’t “sugarcoat things” with them, is that really the case? Let’s take a look at his speech and see.

Sure, there’s some tough talk in there. For example, while promoting his own legislation to delay for two years any U.S. EPA regulations to limit greenhouse gas emissions, Sen. Rockefeller warns the coal operators:

… My greater fear is that we will win some of the battles and yet still lose the war. We must up our game.

We have to increase the intensity of our effort to find solutions to coal’s challenges — not just fight the issue of the day, and certainly not get bogged down in rhetorical games or bickering over side issues.

If we spend even half our time fighting for the status quo, we will be left behind.

Of consider his comments about the defeat of climate legislation last year:

It is tempting just to count the defeat of cap and trade as a win and forget about it, or to keep up the fight on the political front without delving deeper into the issues. But for West Virginia, that would be a grave mistake.

The defeat of cap and trade was a short-term political win but it didn’t do anything to address the underlying issues. It bought us time, not certainty, and my view is that we better use it wisely.

But then there are other parts of the speech that leave me wondering, like his comments on coal mine safety:

… And we know that Appalachian coal miners are up to any challenge, will face down any danger

Mining will always be a dangerous occupation. We accept that …  But you as an industry and we as senators share an obligation to do as much as we can to prevent needless accidents and fatalities.

Why hasn’t Sen. Rockefeller adopted the view of his friend, CONSOL Energy CEO Brett Harvey, who has said that all mining accidents and fatalities are needless?

We are committed to zero. Our people are committed to zero. Zero is a real number and we intend to drive the company toward that goal.

Then there’s Sen. Rockefeller telling the coal industry that “EPA bashing” won’t work … If Sen. Rockefeller believes that, then why don’t he and Sen. Joe Manchin tone down the “war on Appalachian coal mining” rhetoric they keep putting out regarding EPA’s efforts to reduce the damage being done by mountaintop removal?

Instead of — as he did on Friday — just demanding that EPA  “get the permit process as a whole moving again” — why doesn’t Sen. Rockefeller work with EPA to come up with a plan that would reduce the pervasive and irreversible impacts of large-scale surface mining in his state?

Sen. Rockefeller repeated his belief that climate legislation considered last year in the House and Senate included “no serious effort” to fund carbon capture and storage technology “or to give the industry the time needed to gain a meaningful foothold for new technology.”  Surely when he says that, Sen. Rockefeller knows that American Electric Power backed the Waxman-Markey bill in the House, while the United Mine Workers — of all groups — greatly praised the legislation.

Sen. Rockefeller also included these couple of lines in his coal association speech:

We know that this nation cannot and will not prosper without coal, either today or any time in the future.

The decline of coal is not inevitable — there are just as many factors working for us as against us.

First of all, there have been several recent studies (see here and here) that explain how we could move away from the use of coal toward the use of 100-percent renewable energy.  I thought perhaps Sen. Rockefeller had learned his lesson about making his absolutist statements about the solid future of coal.

Second, there’s plenty of evidence out there that a pretty significant decline in coal production from Central Appalachia — the heart of Rockefeller’s state — over the next 10 to 20 years. Sen. Rockefeller doesn’t talk about that, and doesn’t seem interested in helping his constituents face up to that very real possibility.

Like I said, Sen. Rockefeller seems to be trying in his own way to be an honest broker. But will continuing to sugarcoat the situation help meet what he says his own goals are:

The coal industry is at a crossroads like never before — change is already upon us. And we have to find a way — urgently — to grab hold of our own future.