Rockefeller: Coal must ‘boldly embrace’ the future

June 20, 2012 by Ken Ward Jr.

Mr. President, I rise today in the shadow of one seemingly narrow Senate vote — the Inhofe resolution of disapproval of the Environmental Protection Agency’s rules on mercury and air toxics — to talk about West Virginia. About our people – our way of life, our health, our state’s economic opportunity – and about our future.

Coal has played an important part in our past and can play an important role in our future but it will only happen if we face reality.

This is a critical and contentious time in the Mountain State. The dialogue on coal, its impacts, and the federal government’s role has reached a fevered pitch.

Carefully orchestrated messages that strike fear in the hearts of West Virginians and feed uncertainty about coal’s future are the subject of paid television ads, billboards, break room bulletin boards, public meetings, letters and lobbying campaigns.

A daily onslaught declares that coal is under siege from harmful outside forces, and that the future of the state is bleak unless we somehow turn back the clock, ignore the present and block the future.

West Virginians understandably worry that a way of life and the dignity of a job is at stake. Change and uncertainty in the coal industry is unsettling. But my fear is that concerns are also being fueled by the narrow view of others with divergent motivations – one that denies the inevitability of change in the energy industry, and unfairly leaves coal miners in the dust.

The reality is that many who run the coal industry today would rather attack false enemies and deny real problems than find solutions.

Instead of facing the challenges and making tough decisions like men of a different era, they are abrogating their responsibilities to lead. Consol’s Bobby Brown, was never timid, especially when he and the United Mine Workers turned around labor management relations in the central coal fields.

Scare tactics are a cynical waste of time, money and worst of all coal miners’ hopes. But sadly, these coal operators have closed themselves off from any other opposing voices and few dared to speak out for change – even though it’s been staring them in the face for years.

This reminds me of the auto industry, which also resisted change for decades. Coal operators should learn from both the mistakes and recent success of the auto industry. I passionately believe coal miners deserve better than they are getting from operators and West Virginia certainly deserves better too.

Let’s start with the truth. Coal today faces real challenges, even threats and we all know what they are:

—  First, our coal reserves are finite and many coal-fired power plants are aging. The cheap, easy coal seams are diminishing, and production is falling – especially in the Central Appalachian Basin in Southern West Virginia. Production is shifting to lower cost areas like the Illinois and Powder River Basins. The average age of our nation’s 1,100-plus coal fired plants is 42.5 years, with hundreds of plants even older. These plants run less often, are less economic and the least efficient.

— Second, natural gas use is on the rise. Power companies are switching to natural gas because of lower prices, cheaper construction costs, lower emissions and vast, steady supplies. Even traditional coal companies like Consol are increasingly investing in natural gas over coal.

—  Third, the shift to a lower carbon economy is not going away and it’s a disservice to coal miners and their families to pretend that it is. Coal company operators deny that we need to do anything to address climate change despite the established scientific consensus and mounting national desire for a cleaner, healthier environment.

Despite the barrage of ads, the EPA alone is not going to make or break coal. There are many forces exerting pressure and that agency is just one of them.

We need real world solutions to protect the future of coal.

Two years ago, I offered a “time out” on EPA carbon rules — a two-year suspension that could have broken the logjam in Congress and given us an opportunity to address carbon issues legislatively.

But instead of supporting this approach, coal operators went for broke when they demanded a complete repeal of all EPA authority to address carbon emissions forever. They demanded all or nothing, turned aside a compromise and in the end got nothing.

Last year, they ran exactly the same play, demanding all or nothing on the cross-state air pollution rule – refusing to entertain any middle ground, and denying even a hint of legitimacy for the views on the other side. And they lost again, badly.

So here we are with another all-or-nothing resolution destined to fail. This foolish action wastes time and money that could have been invested in the future of coal. Instead, with each bad vote they give away more of their leverage and they lock in failure.

This time the issue is whether to block an EPA rule – the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS or Utility MACT) – that requires coal-fired power plants to reduce mercury and other toxic air pollution.

I oppose this resolution because I care so much about West Virginians.

Without good health it’s difficult to hold down a job or live the American dream. Chronic illness is debilitating and impacts a family’s income, prosperity and ultimately its happiness.

The annual health benefits of the rule are enormous. EPA has relied on thousands of studies that established the serious and long term impact of these pollutants on premature deaths, heart attacks, hospitalizations, pregnant women, babies and children.

Moreover, it significantly reduces the largest remaining human-caused emissions of mercury–a potent neurotoxin with fetal impacts.

Maybe some can shrug off the advice of the American Academy of Pediatrics and others but I cannot.

This rule has been in the works through a public process for many years. Some businesses – including some utilities in West Virginia – already have invested in technology and are ready to comply.

Others haven’t prepared – because they have chosen to focus on profits rather than upgrading or investing in these smaller, older and less efficient coal-fired plants that were paid for decades ago and that they’ll tell you would be retired anyway.

That’s right. Every single plant slated for closure in West Virginia was already on the chopping block from their own corporate boards within several years.

It’s important to be truthful to miners that coal plants will close because of decisions made by corporate boards long ago – not just because of EPA regulations, but because the plants are no longer economical as utilities build low-emission natural gas plants.

Natural gas has its challenges, too – with serious questions about water contamination and shortages and other environmental concerns. But while coal executives pine for the past, natural gas looks to the future -investing in technologies to reduce their environmental footprint. And they’re working with others on ways to support the safe development of gas – and we will all be watching.

It’s not too late for the coal industry to step up and lead by embracing the realities of today and creating a sustainable future. Discard the scare tactics. Stop denying science. Listen to what markets are saying about greenhouse gases and other environmental concerns, to what West Virginians are saying about their water and air, their health, and the cost of caring for seniors and children who are most susceptible to pollution.

Stop and listen to West Virginians – miners and families included – who see that the bitterness of the fight has taken on more importance than any potential solutions. Those same miners care deeply about their children’s health and the streams and mountains of West Virginia. They know we can’t keep to the same path.

Miners, their families, and their neighbors are why I came to West Virginia and they are why I made our state my home. I’ve been proud to stand shoulder to shoulder with coal miners and we’ve done a lot of good together over the years.

For more than 20 years, I’ve worked to protect the health and safety of coal miners – everything from the historic Coal Act, to mine safety laws, pensions, and Black Lung benefits – always with miners’ best interest in mind.

And despite what critics contend, I’m standing with coal miners today by voting against this resolution.

I don’t support this Resolution of Disapproval because it does nothing to look to the future of coal. It does nothing to consider the voices of West Virginians. It moves us backward, not forward. And unless this industry aggressively leans into the future, coal miners will lose the most.

Beyond the frenzy over this one EPA rule, we need to focus squarely on the real task of finding a long-term future for coal that addresses legitimate environmental and health concerns.

Let me be clear. I’m frustrated with some of the top levels of the coal industry, but I’m not giving up hope for a strong clean coal future. To get there, we’ll need a bold partner, innovation and major public and private investments.

In the meantime, we shouldn’t forget that coal fired power plants provide good jobs for thousands of West Virginians. It remains the underpinning for many small communities and I will always be focused foremost on their future.

Instead of finger pointing, we should commit ourselves to a smart action plan that will help with job transition opportunities, sparking new manufacturing and exploring the next generation of technology.

None of this is impossible. Solving big challenges with American ingenuity is what we do. West Virginia knows energy and West Virginia doesn’t shrink from challenge. We have the chance here to not just grudgingly accept the future – but to boldly embrace it.

34 Responses to “Rockefeller: Coal must ‘boldly embrace’ the future”

  1. Howard Swint says:

    I support Sen. Rockefeller for his bold leadership in this speech. It’s been a long time coming…

  2. yunzer says:

    It should not have to be the exception that we hear a speech, such as this one by Sen. Rockefeller, that is actually founded in reality and rationality.

  3. BOUTTIME says:

    Thank you Sen. Rockefeller finally speaking up for the people, just maybe you have ‘ turned the corner’ as our Late Great Sen. Byrd did when in his later years, when he too sounded the warning to the coal industry & in very similar eloquent style .

  4. Renate Pore says:

    Thank you Senator Rockefeller for speaking truth to power.

  5. Rick Wilson says:

    Thanks, Senator Rockefeller, for reminding me of a time when West Virginians weren’t as given to groveling as they now seem to be.

  6. Gail Falk says:

    Senator Rockefeller, I have been following your career for more than four decades since we were both 20 something activists in West Virginia. I would say this is your finest hour. It’s good to see you becoming stronger and clearer with age!

  7. Bo Webb says:

    I applaud Senator Rockefeller. I believe he has taken a thorough and thoughtful approach to the reality of coal in West Virginia’s future. A sustainable economy, a sustainable life in the 21st century will not be possible if all we depend upon is coal. Beyond that truth, Senator Rockefeller, and many, many West Virginians are aware of the health issues associated with mountaintop removal coal mining. Just yesterday, the CDC released data showing that strip miners are getting black lung. If a strip miner working on an MTR site 8-10 hours a day is getting black lung, what must be happening to the people living directly beneath these types of mining activities that are breathing the same dust and toxins for 24 hours a day, every day? It is time mountaintop removal is stopped. I urge everyone to call Representative Rahall’s office and petition him to not stand in the way of, but to support bill HR 5959, the Appalachian Community Health Emergency Act; which allows for a comprehensive study to determine what is causing the rise of serious health problems to our families and friends that live in the shadows of toxic blasting and runoff from mountaintop removal mining.

  8. Barbara Rasmussen says:

    Spoken like a gentleman and a scholar. Thank You Senator Rockefeller

  9. Mark says:

    I am proud that Jay Rockefeller represents me in Washington.

  10. One wonders what Nick Rahall’s reaction will be… dare he follow Sen. Rock’s lead? Am also interested in hearing from Cecil Roberts in response. The history of the coal industry is marked by repeated episodes of overcapacity, overproduction, and overblown projections. We must disrupt the boom/bust cycle – somehow, some way. Honest assessments (such as this) are to be praised; the question then becomes, how do we process this and proceed to re-think the future? within communities? in state capitals? throughout the bituminous-producing region?

    Good ideas for alternative uses of coal’s BTUs are all around; some have been discussed for years. EX: use methane emissions in true-green agricultural projects (e.g., remove excess nitrogen and up-cycle it as fertilizer, burn off other gases as heating for portable greenhouses that produce organic veggies and fruits). Time to blow the dust off the many studies and reports that have languished in obscurity.

    For real economic sustainability, however, we must double or triple the value and tax assessments of corporate-held coal-lands – those in development and those that currently lie fallow or only marginally reclaimed. In my county (Wise Co., VA), the average value of a corporate-owned acre is around $300; for an acre owned by a human being, the average value is approx. $3,000 (much more if public utilities are accessible). We must use our taxing power encourage absentee corporations to free up post-mined lands for entrepreneurs and NGOs to do the kind of restorative agriculture described above.

    FWIW, in VA’s ‘Fighting Ninth’ congressional district, the Democratic candidate is Anthony Flaccavento who is well-known for just these kinds of projects throughout the region. He aims to unseat Morgan Griffith who used Koch dollars and Obama’s alleged ‘war-on-coal’ in 2010 to defeat Rick Boucher.

  11. Dave Rao says:

    I take back every rotten word I ever uttered about this fine gentleman.

  12. Observer says:

    Sounds like a retirement speech to me.

  13. Ken Ward Jr. says:


    Please remember the comment policy of this blog, including the following:

    “Keep the cheer-leading comments to a minimum…”


  14. Kay says:

    He always had my vote Good Man

  15. Patricia Ansley says:

    Well said, Senator Rockefeller! it appears you may have finally stepped into your prime as a true representative of the fine State of West Virginia. We, I, am proud, very proud of you. I wish you would run for a MUCH higher office. BRAVO!!!! As for Bo Webb and your concerns regarding Mountaintop Removal…NO mountain should ever be removed! No matter what foolish promises are made, it can never be “put back”. That is the most laughable piece of hogwash I have ever heard. However, the toxins unleashed into the air and streams, not to mention the thousands of miles that have been buried is a sin against man and nature. I pray your bill gets passed. Keep up the good fight.

  16. Truman Dalton says:

    Thank you, Senator Rockefeller, for your cogent, informed remarks on this subject.

  17. Catherine Moore says:

    Ken – I would love to see a reaction piece on this. Or a post with your analysis. Cheers!

  18. Catherine Moore says:

    Which is to say, it seems like a historic moment to me.

  19. Dave Cooper says:

    Im guessing that the title for this blog is a reference to the late Sen Byrds great speech “Coal Must Embrace the Future” from 2009

    Its worth re-reading:

    Thanks to Sen Rockefeller for this speech. The tide is turning. Big Coal can either adapt or be washed away.

  20. Pete Galvin says:

    I share the views of the other commenters so far. But how will West Virginia leaders and the UMWA react? Will Sen. Manchin show some courage? Sen. Byrd was roundly pelted when he finally spoke up; let us hope that miners and the general public will rally round this time.

  21. I applaud Senator Rockefeller for taking this brave long overdue stand for the people of West Virginia. The studies about the health impacts of coal cannot be ignored any longer. How can our other elected officials “shrug” off recommendations from The American Academy of Pediatrics any longer with their heads held high? Senator Rockefeller has thrown down the gauntlet and/or drawn a line in the sand for the coal industry. Now let us see who else has the same courage.

  22. James McGuinness says:

    Well done, Sen. Rockefeller. After a number of years, you are finally standing with the people of West Virginia. I hope that you will stand strong with these people until mountain top removal is finished. And that you will help se to it that those who jave been living underneath the devastation caused by mtr will be reimbursed for health care to solve their medical and mental health issue, if any.

  23. Duane Thaxton says:

    This is an election year and the polititions are saying any and everything to be elected or be remembered. Let’s see, what would become of WV if the coal were to go away? Unemployment would be astronomical. Crime would increase. Childrens health care would suffer. Many families would lose thier homes. The drug problem would be out of control. And, WV would become a third world like state.

  24. yunzer says:


    It is easy to see what West Virginia might look like without coal – just go the parts of West Virgunia and adjoining Virginia that have no coal. Compare, say Pendleton or Pocohontas or Greenbriar counties or adjoining Highland and Bath Counties, Va. to say, Mingo or Boone Counties. The living standard is visibly better in the non-coal areas.

  25. Maggie Louden says:

    Thank you Sen. Rockefeller for your stand and this speech. So many West Virginians in coal areas have generations of price so coal operators could get rich and the rest of the US might have cheaper energy. These fols are owed so much. They deserve a better and healthful future. Talk to the rest of West Virginian politicians who must benefit from the largesse of the coal operators.

  26. Vernon says:

    Duane, your hyperbolic post is a good example of the same message that makes a rational discussion about WV’s future difficult. A commonsense approach to actually enforcing the laws, regulations that take communities’ health and well-being into account, and working to diversify the economy will not make coal go away overnight. Coal is doing a good job of going away with the help of the people who mine and burn it, with several entries in Coal Tattoo about forecasts that have little or nothing to do with environmental or health regulations. And many of the ills that you predict are already a plague on the communities most impacted by coal extraction. Even Dr. Borak’s response to Dr. Hendryx’s work attributes the poor health of coal extraction communities to the poor economic condition common in coal extraction communities. I think it’s time to stop waiting for that promised prosperity.

  27. Todd says:

    Alright, just do it. Quit talking about it and do it. Natural gas is not cheaper folks. The state of WV gets a coal serverance tax, they get taxes from miners who make anywhere from 40,000 to 100,00 bucks a year and more than that in upper management. We who live in the south still see roads that really suck! Why, mostly because the money is spent somewhere else. The southern counties whould be the richest in the state you can blame who ya want for that and both sides have solid points. But heck, the whole state seems to be turning it’s back on coal. Just do it. What will be is that the southern counties will experience massive unemployment. The state will no longer be in the black as it was when nearly every other one was operating in the red. Just do it and see what happens. Your power bill WILL skyrocket. Your state will plummet into oblivion, because there is no alternative employment for miners other than substandard wages in another field. Whatcha gonna do WV? What is your plan after you stomp coal in the grave? Well, I’m waiting. Just what I thought, nothing. The irony in all this is that someday WV will want people to visit the beautiful, places in WV which have been “developed” into wildlife refuges, but what is now commonly called “destruction of our mountains.” Have any of you ever visited a reclaiimed mine site? You should, it is a beuatiful place when it’s all finished. I can take ya to several. Oh and I am not a strip miner, I make my living miles underground. WV, you are gonna get what you are asking for, and you won’t like it.

  28. Charlie West says:

    The facts are in and they are hard to ignore: The coal industry is a major drain on WV’s state budget. Mining coal brings in about $600 million in revenues a year, but costs WV a whopplin’ $97.4 million more than that. The report that reveals it is by the joint venture between the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy and a firm called Downstream Strategies. Although it’s been known for quite awhile now, somehow it’s never been addressed by any of our lawmakers. Including Rockefeller.

    It turns out that the coal extraction industry requires huge amounts of our taxes to be spent repairing roads and bridges damaged by hauling the stuff. The tax credits and exemptions that our coal-fired politicians have approved through the years are costing us a fortune as well.

    NOT included in that study were the costs of health care, climate change, mountaintop removal and dead miners associated with the coal extraction industry. As a cure for coal’s net drain on our economy, the authors recommend that the West Virginia Legislature consider revoking industry tax breaks, and hike hauling fees on trucks from the measly 8 cents now assessed to $2.80 per ton just to cover the damage it does to our state and county infrastructure.

    It’s pretty safe to assume that the guys at the WV Office of Budget and Policy are right because similar studies undertaken independently in surrounding coal producing states echo their results.

    Now let’s talk about what it does to our health: Coal has been directly linked to as many as 11,000 premature deaths and 4,700 heart attacks a year. Also connected are 130,000 cases of childhood asthma symptoms and about 6,300 cases of acute bronchitis among children yearly.

    There was a study released about a year ago (June 2011) titled “The Association Between Mountaintop Mining and Birth Defects Among Live Births in Appalachia, 1996-2003”. It showed that in areas where MTR is used, health abnormalities almost doubled defects in non-MTR areas. What they’re talking about is spina bifida, heart, lung, and genital malformations, cleft palate, hydrocephalus, and club feet They also revealed that living in an area with mountaintop removal increases the chance of having a child with a circulatory defect by 181 percent. The six scientists who analyzed more than 1.8 million hospital birth records for the central portion of Appalachia’s coal patch is a little hard to ignore, but apparently there are many who insist on doing so. They most likely have a vested interest in buying the coal lobbyist propaganda that blamed it all on hillbillies in-breeding not too long ago.

    Let’s never forget the D.C. law firm of Crowell & Moring where four of the firm’s lawyer/ propagandists, had been hired by the mining industry to argue that one study which revealed a high causality between mountaintop removal mining and birth defects by suggesting that the study was flawed because it “failed to account for consanquinity” [sic].

    Now that the Senate’s attempt to stop the EPA’s restriction on mercury has failed, I predict that Rockefeller will do just as he said he’d do in that speech and subsidize the coal industry’s effort to produce “clean” coal technology. They’ll in turn use most of it to stave off the inevitable for as long as possible, and in the process kill and maim even more of us.

  29. Mari-Lynn says:

    Reading Sen Rockefeller’s statement, I thought back to when I was a young girl and Jay and Sharon Rockefeller first came to WV. I remember the excitement and hope my family had for (now) Senator Rockefeller to improve West Virginia. For me, that promise has been realized especially today. Sen Rockefeller has acted in the best interests of West Virginia, and not the singular interests of the coal industry. In this day and age, his statement shows courage and integrity that few elected officals exhibit. It reminded me of a similar statement from the Honorable Sen Robert C Byrd on this topic. The future is coming…

  30. Dianne Bady says:

    I am especially moved by these words from Senator Rockefeller, when he refers to the mountain of research linking mercury exposure to health damage in children:

    “Maybe some can shrug off the advice of the American Academy of Pediatrics and others but I cannot.”

    The Senator points out that the EPA mercury rule which he is backing “significantly reduces the largest remaining human-caused emissions of mercury–a potent neurotoxin with fetal impacts.”

    How sad that he will be verbally attcked by many for taking this position.

  31. Rae says:

    With generations of my family in Boone County, and a dad that had to leave the state if he wanted to be something other than a coal miner or a chemical industry worker, I do not hold with some of the comments about this legislation “killing” the coal industry. That industry has it’s boom and bust times that are now dictated by international markets. The WV coal based economy has fared poorly in this unpredictable market, like a small boat in a large, wild ocean. All the proof you need of this truth is a car and a day to drive through all the tiny towns dotted all over the state. You’ll see consistent evidence of decades of Boom and Bust. Now it’s mostly bust that you see. This all happened long before any talk of legislating the coal industry. We here in WV have been on a down turn for quite some time.

    What we need is a large dose of economic and social justice here in WV. To start, well funded public schools and affordable state college education for all in state young people who have truly earned the right to attend. For those who are not interested in higher education, a real diversification of job opportunities, not a choice between driving truck or demolition work on the large scale MTR projects dominating the southern coal fields, or minimum wage work at Walmart. The absence of any real choices for our young West Virginians is in the end what will “doom” our state, not coal industry reforms. Thank you Senator Rockefeller, for finally seeing “the people” in your work. I have been waiting a very long time for this from you.

  32. Lew Baker says:

    King Coal is in a steep decline. Not long ago it was used to produce more than half of the electricity in this country. According to the latest data from the US Energy Information Administration, electricity produced from coal is falling quiclkly, to just 34% of the total in March, with natural gas climbing to 30%.

    Here’s a link to EIA’s data:

    Many folks still want to believe the shift in fuels is minor, or that environmentalists and the EPA are chiefly to blame for coal’s demise. The truth is the change-over is rapid, and is primarily because there is now an abundance of a cheaper, cleaner fuel.

    Senator Rockefeller certainly deserves credit for his honest assessment. It is sad such comments from a leader are exceptional rather than commonplace.

  33. dell spade says:

    So sad. Jay becomes the “Senior Senator” for only one term. I am sure that his speech does not play well in the homes of laid off coal miners. He has no compassion just a political agenda.

  34. Brad says:

    This is something I have been waiting and warning about since moving back to WV 8 months ago. Its time for all of WV’s, especially coal miners to prepare for a future where coal is not 100% reliable source of energy and jobs.
    The corporations that own coal mines, have already taken steps over 20 years ago to decrease the amount of working bodies, to more automated machinery.

    The EPA is simply doing its job to protect the welfare of all individuals from pollutants that will do serious harm.

    I lived in china, where regulation is minimal to say the least. The amount of pollution in the areas I lived, Wuxi, Shanghai, and Beijing, are beyond comprehensible. Many many people were sick and many rivers and streams were polluted so bad that fish were simply floating on the top, everyday

    I moved back from Los Angeles, about 12 years of living and working there. And saw a time and opportunity to come back and try and bring technology driven jobs to the state.

    This state missed out on the technology bandwagon, because of coal. Its just that simple. There has alway been a dependence of coal as our only source or major source of income, and the state has turned a blind eye to diversifying.

    Now, and with the help of state representatives like Jay Rockefeller, we can change this state for the better.