Coal Tattoo

Some things are abundantly clear this week, following Sen. Jay Rockefeller’s Senate floor speech about the future of our state’s coalfields: In West Virginia, it’s big news — huge news, really — if one of our political leaders dares to tell a little bit of truth about the coal industry. And, of course, any politician brave enough to do that better be ready for a fierce response from coal and its many political allies.

Take, just for one example, the fit that Charleston Mayor Danny Jones threw on the radio:

He’s a very nice man and he’s very kind to people and very kind to me personally.  But we’ve had enough of this guy.  We don’t need his kind of leadership in West Virginia.

Other reactions have been just as predictable, including today’s editorial in the Daily Mail  (which resorts to nonsense like the phrase “fear-mongering anticarbonites“) and the comments the Daily Mail published from West Virginia Chamber of Commerce President Steve Roberts (who often seems to think his job is to be chairman of the state Republican party).

Remember now that Steve Roberts used a nasty misinformation campaign to try to derail the late Sen. Robert C. Byrd’s effort to help coal miners struggling with black lung disease, and also tried to hint in a not-so-subtle way (subscription required) that perhaps Sen. Byrd’s  “Embrace the Future” speech about coal wasn’t really coming from the senator himself. So it was with Sen. Rockefeller this week, with a Politico story calling the speech the senator’s “swan song” and lots of people whispering about whether his coal comments were a sure sign he wasn’t going to seek another term in two years.

The West Virginia Coal Association issued its own statement responding to Sen. Rockefeller and when I spoke with coal lobby President Bill Raney, he made two points that I thought were interesting. I included this first part in a print story today:

Bill Raney, president of the West Virginia Coal Association, said Thursday he was “extremely disappointed” in Rockefeller and that the industry’s public relations campaign is absolutely correct when it argues “Appalachia is just totally under assault” by the Obama administration’s U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

“I don’t look at it as scare tactics,” Raney said. “I don’t think he’s talking about our ads. They aren’t scare tactics. We’ve tried our best to be very positive about this thing.”

OK … if the Coal Association isn’t trying to scare people, why are they promoting advertising spots like this one on their website?

The other thing Bill said that I found interesting was this:

I wish [Senator Rockefeller] had called and we could have had a conversation about the concerns he had.

Seriously now.  At least twice previously, Sen. Rockefeller has called the coal lobby and industry executives out publicly for denying the science of global warming and using “scare tactics” in their campaign to block any reforms of mining practices or coal-related pollution.

It happened first in September 2010, when Sen. Rockefeller appears on stage over at the University of Charleston with Obama Energy Secretary Steve Chu. As we reported at the time:

Rockfeller, chairman of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, also blasted industry leaders and members of West Virginia media who promote the notion that global warming isn’t real.

“I’m concerned that powerful voices in West Virginia continue to argue that climate change is a myth,” Rockefeller said. “I’m not on the same bandwagon that some of you are.”

The senator said that climate change skeptics are harming West Virginia by putting off efforts to perfect and deploy CCS, giving natural gas more time to cut into coal’s market and hurt mining’s long-term viability.

“Burying one’s head in the sand is not a solution, and can only backfire,” Rockefeller said.

About five months later, Sen. Rockefeller took a similar message directly to Raney’s organization, in this speech to the annual West Virginia Coal Symposium. As we reported at the time:

Rockefeller said industry officials should not simply fight making changes in the way they operate, but focus on finding better ways to adapt.

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

But each time Sen. Rockefeller seemed about to really go out on a limb on coal issues, he would pull back, or hedge, or say something that was, frankly, a bit silly or that suggested he wasn’t really paying attention, or maybe was the victim of  bad staff work. And despite Sen. Rockefeller’s recent statements about coal ash legislation, this week’s vote to stand up for EPA’s efforts to reduce mercury and other toxic air pollution from power plants is really the first time the senator has put his vote on the line against the industry’s wishes on a specific issue.

On the legislation at hand, those who have criticized Sen. Rockefeller’s vote this week haven’t really laid a glove on him on the substance. Take Hoppy Kercheval over at MetroNews. Hoppy tried to recycle the same stuff he’s peddled before from The Economist about how terribly EPA has overstated the potential health benefits of this power plant emissions rule. This stuff has been soundly debunked before by the Center for Progressive Reform.


What’s missed in all of the scare tactics that have followed Sen. Rockefeller’s speech about scare tactics is that a lot of what the senator is talking about is tone, tactics and time frames. For example:

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.

Sen. Rockefeller is saying he understands — and agrees, to a large extent — with the concerns many West Virginians have about the decline of the coal industry, but that he doesn’t think the current “war on coal” campaign is the way to address these concerns:

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.

This isn’t an attack on the men and women who work hard every day for the coal operations that help provide our nation’s energy and steel. It’s an attack on top executives, and on the army of public relations people who get rich scaring the public and the legions of industry lawyers who profit from fighting any effort to control industry excesses or to ensure those injured by coal are compensated fairly. And though it’s not said, it’s also a pointed criticism of other state leaders who continue to keep their heads in the sand.

Any reasonable person who reads or watches the speech understands that Sen. Rockefeller isn’t calling for the end of coal. He’s saying he wants coal to have a future, and that he wants huge public investments to ensure that 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.

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.

One problem here is that Sen. Rockefeller has yet to spell out any concrete steps he believes should be taken in this direction. And he ignores some of the steps that experts agree are needed, such as a cap and required reductions in coal-fired power plant greenhouse emissions to encourage more work to perfect and deploy carbon capture and storage technology.

And in case you didn’t notice it, two words that weren’t mentioned in Sen. Rockefeller’s speech? That’s right: Mountaintop removal. That’s one key difference between this speech and the coal remarks from Sen. Byrd, who took on the controversial issue, saying:

The increased use of mountaintop removal mining means that fewer miners are needed to meet company production goals … It is also a reality that the practice of mountaintop removal mining has a diminishing constituency in Washington. It is not a widespread method of mining, with its use confined to only three states.  Most members of Congress, like most Americans, oppose the practice, and we may not yet fully understand the effects of mountaintop removal mining on the health of our citizens.

We’ve learned a lot more about the effects of mountaintop removal on the health of our citizens since Sen. Byrd said that.  Sen. Rockefeller spoke eloquently about the health impacts of power plant emissions:

 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.

Why then does Sen. Rockefeller shrug off the findings of West Virginia University studies that indicate those of his constituents who live near mountaintop removal mines are more likely to get cancer or have babies with birth defects?

In reality, all Sen. Rockefeller has urged West Virginians — especially those who run the coal industry — to do is to base their discussions about mining’s future on some facts, instead of hysterics. This is a hard sell, given that Republican opponents of Sen. Joe Manchin and Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin have Sen. Manchin and Gov. Tomblin running scared of any suggestion, no matter how ridiculous, that they are not friends of the coal industry. And it certainly didn’t help Sen. Rockefeller that Arch Coal timed the announcement of more Appalachian layoffs for the day after his Senate floor speech.  That announcement makes it all the more important for everyone to read the part of his speech where Sen. Rockefeller outlined the real challenges facing coal:

– 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.

Photo by Jon C. Hancock, Associated Press

Maybe the most important thing Sen. Rockefeller said, though, had more to do with what sort of future all of us, and especially our leaders, are telling our children or grandchildren they might — or might not — have in West Virginia. I’ve written on this blog before:

On thing that has been on my mind lately is what coal miners used to tell me when I drove around Southern West Virginia 20 years ago when I first started at the Gazette. They always used to tell me they did what they did so their kids could go to college and do something else. They seldom wanted coal mining to be their son or daughter’s future. But today, all you hear from political leaders like Sens. Jay Rockefeller and Joe Manchin is that “coal defines us” and is West Virginia’s future.

Those who push the notion that the Obama administration is engaging in a “war on coal” would have us believe that if only the current administration could be defeated, we could have 100,000 coal miners working in West Virginia again … the good times would be rolling.

Sen. Rockefeller talked about finding a way to maintain some future for coal. But he also warned us that we can’t go back to the past. One of the most interesting points in his speech was when he was delivering that line about “the lower carbon economy not going away” and diverted from the prepared text. I included that prepared text above. Here’s what the senator really said on the floor of the United States Senate:

The shift to a lower carbon economy is not going away, and it’s a disservice — a terrible disservice — to coal miners and their families to pretend that it is, to tell them that it is, that everything can be as it was.  That can’t be. It’s over.