Coal Tattoo

Yesterday was one of those days where news developments illustrated clearly what I was talking about when I started this blog: That there are really two different discussions going on in this country about coal:

One of them is out there in the broader world. Scientists, policymakers and even investors are becoming more and more convinced that the downsides of coal have to be addressed. One way or the other, coal-fired power’s contribution to global warming must be dealt with. To these folks, the question is: Can coal have a place in our energy mix in a carbon-constrained world?

The other discussion is happening here in West Virginia, and in other coal communities. Locally, the issues are different, and in many ways much more emotional. It’s a battle between families who rely on coal to put food on their tables and send their kids to college, and folks who live near coal mines and are tired of blasting, dust, and water pollution. To these folks, the questions are: How can we protect coal’s future or how can we shut down mountaintop removal?

Increasingly, connections are being made between parts of these two threads. Scientists and environmental activists who worry about climate change are more and more understanding the on-the-ground impacts of mountaintop removal, coal ash and even unsafe working conditions in the nation’s coalfields.

The late Sen. Robert C. Byrd talked hinted at this in his “embrace the future” speech and essay, telling us:

West Virginians can choose to anticipate change and adapt to it, or resist and be overrun by it. One thing is clear. The time has arrived for the people of the Mountain State to think long and hard about which course they want to choose.

So then we have yesterday’s developments …

First, a significant announcement by the Tennessee Valley Authority:

The Tennessee Valley Authority announced plans Thursday to retire 18 older coal-fired generation units at three power plants as part of the federal utility’s vision of being one of the nation’s leading providers of low-cost and cleaner energy by 2020.

… The capacity will be replaced with low-emission or zero-emission electricity sources, including renewable energy, natural gas, nuclear power and energy efficiency …

During a conference call with news reporters, EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson explained that TVA’s move was a “business decision,” but also a move that fits in with EPA efforts on a variety of fronts to force the coal industry to confront the externalized costs of its pollution:

The message here is that we don’t have anything against coal, but we have to reduce pollution that comes from coal to our air, to our water and on our land.

At about the same time that TVA announcement was being made, the U.S. House Committee on Energy and Commerce was holding a hearing on West Virginia Republican Rep. David McKinley’s bill to block EPA from taking action to better regulate toxic ash from coal-fired power plants.

Rep. McKinley (whose bill is co-sponsored by Republican Shelley Moore Capito and Democrat Nick Rahall) touts his proposal as another effort to curb excessive regulation of the coal industry by President Obama and the EPA.

But one of McKinley’s own constituents testified at that hearing, and told McKinley and other lawmakers why tougher federal regulations are needed:

I live in Chester, West Virginia, 1,584 feet from the nearest finger of Little Blue Run unlined coal ash impoundment …  We have found out there are ten monitoring wells at Little Blue that have high levels of arsenic, and no one told us about them …

… We don’t believe we can depend on the WVDEP or PADEP to protect our health from the known toxic metals found in coal ash. We believe the only way to get health protections from toxic coal ash are through federal rules – and require the states to enforce those protections. I have concerns about my wife’s health and my health because I have grown a family garden on my land for the past 34 years and have fed my children and my grandchildren from it …

… We are only on earth one time. Please help us keep it safe and make a better place to live for us and our grandchildren. We understand jobs are important – but no one should have to chose jobs OR health. We need and deserve both.

And finally, we had our good friend Sen. Jay Rockefeller, issuing a commentary which was meant to explain why he continues his effort to stop the Obama EPA from doing anything about the climate crisis.

Sen. Rockefeller begins and ends the commentary with what has become the West Virginia political leadership’s standard pledge of allegiance to coal.

He starts out:

Here in West Virginia, coal mining isn’t just a way of living — it’s a way of life.

And he closes:

Coal mining is a way of life in West Virginia: It’s a cornerstone of our heritage. In some ways, it defines us.

Never mind that a handful of West Virginia counties account for the vast majority of the state’s coal production, while at the same time being home to a very small share of our population.  Or that many of those same counties are among the poorest in West Virginia.  Or that coal is a very small share of  West Virginia’s gross state product.

One interesting thing I noticed in this commentary is the phrase “cleaner coal,” in Sen. Rockefeller’s description of his legislation:

… It’s the best shot we have of preventing the EPA from wrecking havoc on our economy and grabbing hold of a brighter future for cleaner coal.

I’m not sure what “clean coal” is for sure, let alone “cleaner coal.” Sometimes you have to wonder if these buzz words really mean anything, or if they are just supposed to sound good. Maybe “cleaner coal” is what happens when you have a test project for carbon capture and sequestration that deals with just a tiny share of a power plant’s total greenhouse emissions. Sen. Rockefeller continually promotes just such a project, ongoing at  an American Electric Power plant in Mason County, W.Va., without bothering to mention what a small pilot project it really is — or using his position as a senator to educate the people of his state about what a huge challenge and risky venture this whole CCS idea might turn out to be. (Maybe Sen. Rockefeller got the phrase “cleaner coal” from President Obama … who knows.)

One good thing about Sen. Rockefeller’s commentary is that he acknowledges what most coal industry political supporters won’t — that EPA in planning to propose greenhouse gas limits is just following existing law:

The EPA has reducing coal emissions in its sights, and the fact is that right now the law is on its side. In 2007, the Supreme Court essentially decided that greenhouse gases must be regulated and directed the EPA to take action.

As so often seems to happen with coal, though, the answer to that is not to follow the law, but to try to change it. And that’s what Sen. Rockefeller is trying to do with his legislation to block EPA action.

Sen. Rockefeller wants to portray his legislation as some moderate, middle-of-the-road, temporary step, in contrast to what he calls “more extreme proposals” — including one being supported by West Virginia’s junior Senator, Joe Manchin.

But it’s worth looking closely at the reasons Sen. Rockefeller argues that his two-year moratorium on greenhouse gas limits is needed.

At one point in his commentary, Sen. Rockefeller says the bill would:

… Give Congress time to come up with a smart energy policy that pushes development of clean coal technologies, protects the economy and jobs in states like ours and reduces emissions.

In another passage, he oddly refers to EPA’s “rush to regulate” greenhouse gases. Rush to regulate? Seriously?

Come June, it will have been 23 years since Dr. James Hansen warned Congress that global warming was already underway … and with a GOP-controlled House, does Sen. Rockefeller really believe there’s much chance of a comprehensive climate change bill becoming law — or would the success of his EPA-blocking legislation just be a way to again protect coal from having to “embrace the future“?