Another day in West Virginia’s coalfields: Power plants, mine explosions and heads stuck in the sand

March 28, 2012 by Ken Ward Jr.

In this March 13, 2012 photo, a coal barge makes its way to the Bruce Mansfield Power Station in Shippingport , Pa.  (AP Photo)

As I’ve read, listened to and watched the reactions the last two days from West Virginia political leaders reacting to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s proposed rule to limit power plant greenhouse emissions, it’s actually been a little hard to sort out exactly what they’re saying.

Some officials, like Rep. Nick J. Rahall, switch back and forth between talking about the greenhouse gas proposal and blustering about strip-mining permits that it’s hard to keep up with which one they are referring to at any one time.  Others seem to intent on blasting EPA and the Obama administration that they get confused themselves about what they support and don’t support.

For example, as the Daily Mail’s Ry Rivard pointed out on Twitter,  Sen. Joe Manchin had this to say about the natural gas industry in his statement on the EPA greenhouse gas proposal:

This approach relies totally on cheap natural gas and we’ve seen that bubble burst before. It might sound good now, but what happens if those prices go up? Your average hardworking families and manufacturers will be left holding the bag of uncertainty – either in the prices they pay or in the reliability of our electrical system.

Odd. Last time I checked, Sen. Manchin was touting the natural gas drilling boom in the Marcellus Shale, and didn’t seem to have any reservations at all about price volatility:

With the development of this resource, our state has a great opportunity to do two critical things at once: create jobs both now and into the future, and advance our goal of achieving energy independence within this generation.

Rep. Rahall, despite his going easy on MSHA chief Joe Main in congressional hearings, seemed to be talking some sense earlier this week, saying Congress shouldn’t refuse to pass needed mine safety legislation as a way of punishing MSHA for its failings at Upper Big Branch. Then my good friend Rep. Rahall went on the radio with Hoppy Kercheval — who needless to say is beside himself that EPA dare to regulate air pollution — and for some reason that he didn’t really make clear, decided to challenge the obvious NIOSH conclusion that if MSHA had done its job, federal inspectors likely could have prevented the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster:

Perhaps NIOSH went too far in saying MSHA could have prevented UBB. I don’t think we can say that with any certainty at all.

What’s most disappointing about the efforts by some to pivot away from MSHA’s failing to focus almost exclusively on Massey’s reckless safety practices is it seems hung up in the notion (perhaps built into today’s media-political environment) that we can’t focus on more than one thing at a time. Why can’t we talk about Massey’s behavior, MSHA’s problems, and the failings of Congress over many years to properly fund and oversee mine safety programs — all at the same time? I’m not sure, but I think I heard even MSHA chief Joe Main tell lawmakers this week that he agrees with that.

I’m getting ready to shut down Coal Tattoo for a couple of days (and I’ll be closing down the comments section on this post as well), but as I was finishing up this closing post, into my e-mail inbox came Sen. Jay Rockefeller’s statement about the EPA greenhouse gas emissions proposal. And it reminded me to again go back and look at what the late Sen. Robert C. Byrd tried to tell us about embracing the future:

To be part of any solution, one must first acknowledge a problem. To deny the mounting science of climate change is to stick our heads in the sand and say “deal me out.” West Virginia would be much smarter to stay at the table.

The future of coal and indeed of our total energy picture lies in change and innovation. In fact, the future of American industrial power and our economic ability to compete globally depends on our ability to advance energy technology.

The greatest threats to the future of coal do not come from possible constraints on mountaintop removal mining or other environmental regulations, but rather from rigid mindsets, depleting coal reserves, and the declining demand for coal as more power plants begin shifting to biomass and natural gas as a way to reduce emissions.

Change has been a constant throughout the history of our coal industry. 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.


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