Sen. Rockefeller: ‘I’ve just had it’ with coal industry

July 16, 2012 by Ken Ward Jr.

Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., was making the rounds in West Virginia last week, and as you can imagine he was being asked a lot of questions about his recent speech calling out our state’s mining industry for its “war on coal” rhetoric against President Obama.

The Gazette’s Paul Nyden did one story about an appearance Sen. Rockefeller made and reported this interesting tidbit:

Rockefeller said he was particularly proud of his recent speech about the problematic future of the coal industry, especially in Southern West Virginia.

“I’ve never felt so proud about anything in my life,” Rockefeller said. “This issue had been gnawing at me for many years.

“And the huge emblems of ‘Friends of Coal’ in the Charleston Civic Center really annoy me.”

The West Virginia Coal Association and “Friends of Coal” recently paid the city of Charleston fees to allow them to place their emblems on the floor of the Civic Center’s basketball court.

Beth Vorehees over at West Virginia Public Broadcasting has a more detailed interview with Sen. Rockefeller this morning in which the senator points out (as Coal Tattoo did previously) that he has tried to make similar points to the coal industry before in less public confrontations than a Senate floor speech — but didn’t get anywhere with industry officials:

I’ve just had it. I’ve had it. For the last three or four years, that speech has been building up inside of me.

Sen. Rockefeller said he gets particularly irritated when coal industry lobbyists make out like they are speaking for coal miners.  But, as the senator also points out, the United Mine Workers (which does speak for coal miners) hasn’t said much publicly about his speech:

My own feeling is that there are probably a number of people in the United Mine Workers who very much agree with what I said, but can’t say that because they work for the United Mine Workers and they’ve got to keep their membership up and all kinds of other things. But look, Cecil Roberts, he understands these things so incredibly well.

West Virginia Media’s Bray Cary also interviewed Sen. Rockefeller recently, but I haven’t had a chance to watch the full piece yet. Bray Cary, who is hardly no Friend of Coal, did have this to say about Sen. Rockefeller’s speech:

Sen. Jay Rockefeller caused quite a stir during a recent speech on the Senate floor when he said that the coal industry is using scare tactics and that they need to face reality.

Once you get past the anger and controversy, Rockefeller makes a point – rather than dig in and try to revive the past, we, as a state, need to embrace the future.

Part of that means making West Virginia a place where all business, not just the energy industry, can thrive.

But before folks get too excited, let’s remember that Sen. Rockefeller wasn’t exactly coming in favor of stopping even the most destructive forms of coal mining like mountaintop removal.  And as I previously explained:

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.

Mostly what Sen. Rockefeller was doing was calling for an end to the senseless rhetoric, the absurd public relations campaigns,  the nonsense that pollutes all of our political discussions in West Virginia that even remotely touch on coal:

We need people around the table. We need people talking to each other. We need honest dialogue. The state has to face up to this. We need to diversify our economy, especially in Southern West Virginia.

The Gazette’s Saturday editorial, which was widely attacked by Republican activists on the Internet (and cited by Daily Mail management as reason to subscribe to their paper), quoted from part of a great analysis by The New York Times blog FiveThirtyEight.  The editorial focused on demographic issues — age, lower educational attainment, attachment to guns, religion — that make West Virginia a likely Republican-voting state. But the FiveThirtyEight analysis actually was trying to examine what could happen in West Virginia politics as the coal industry continues to decline:

The greatest sources of conflict between national and West Virginia Democrats are energy and environmental policies. Coal was the lifeblood of the state’s economy for decades, and — despite receding as an employer in the state — is still an integral part of the West Virginia psyche (the state’s flag features a farmer and coal miner). A pro-coal stance in West Virginia is as vital a component in electability as being from West Virginia.

It was Al Gore’s perceived hostility to coal and mountaintop mining that helped George W. Bush carry the state in 2000, after it had voted Democratic in 14 of the 17 presidential elections since the Great Depression, when West Virginia began electing Democrats in earnest.

Since the 2000 election, as national Democrats have pursued policies to lower greenhouse gas emissions, West Virginia Democrats have had to work even harder to show their pro-coal bonafides. Mr. Manchin, for example, actually shot the 2007 cap-and-trade bill in a campaign commercial (as governor, he also sued the Environmental Protection Agency over limits on mountaintop mining).

But King Coal’s power in the state may not last indefinitely. In 1948, 126,000 West Virginians worked in coalmines. In 2011, that number was 22,336.

As easily accessible coal seams have been depleted, the so-called “coal counties” in southern West Virginia have lost population. At the same time, less coal-centric areas of the state – the Washington D.C. exurbs in the eastern panhandle and the communities around Morgantown, where West Virginia University is located – have gained population, Mr. Plein said. The coal industry has also been hurt by a boom in cheap natural gas in the Marcellus Shale. About 2,000 coal mining jobs have been shed in just the last few months.

Many West Virginians are looking to other industries, such as tourism, to replace resource extraction as the state’s economic backbone. Wal-Mart is currently the biggest employer in the state.

The diminishing impact of coal as a political force in the state may be a hopeful sign for Democrats. But as long as there are major issues — like energy — where the positions of the national Democratic Party (and thus Democratic presidential candidates) are anathema in West Virginia, it is likely Republicans will continue to win the state in presidential elections.

The more immediate question is: will state-level races, where Democrats still dominate, begin to shift and match the state’s Republican preference in presidential elections?

“You can’t have a two-legged stool,” Mr. Rupp said, “at some point West Virginia is going to change.”


12 Responses to “Sen. Rockefeller: ‘I’ve just had it’ with coal industry”

  1. I too wait for Senator Rockefeller’s concrete steps to be revealed.

    It seems that finally, a politician who can possibly affect serious, positive social change, in favor of all that live and breath, seizing the opportunity to do so with the will of the people behind him.

  2. Robin B says:

    I agree that he needs to tell us what he’s going to do with his newly revealed convictions. Maybe he could visit some people who are directly affected by mountaintop removal coal mining and slurry/sludge impoundments and injections. I’m very glad for his recent speeches. If he puts his feet on the trail of justice, I’ll sing the man’s praises from the highest intact mountain I can find.

  3. Nancy Arritt says:

    Ken Ward in this article is perpetuating the myth that the United Mine Workers of America speaks for ALL coal miners. The truth is that both the percentage and real number of coal miners nationwide represented by the UMWA has drastically declined over the past 30+ years and they have for many years, and now continue, to represent less than 20% of working miners. For some reason the WV press and political structure can’t seem to grasp this fact.

  4. Cesco Estep says:

    The third leg on Rupp’s hypothetical stool is the Mountain Party of West Virginia.

  5. Micajah88 says:

    WVa will remain a colony of the coal companies until our “leaders” face the decine of coal usage as well as the true costs of mining in regard to black lung, unsafe practices in the mines, and the environment. Our state has been held hostage by the coal barons since the 1880s. MTR is a devastating affront to the environment and well-being of Appalachian people yet our politicians will not stand against it.

  6. Cesco Estep says:

    If that Civic Center basketball court Friends of Coal symbol really bugs Rockefeller, then what about the mockery that the giant lump of coal at WVU’s Pushkar Stadium that was taken from the deadly Upper Big Branch mine? Every time they pat that wretched thing for “luck” it stains the memory of the unfortunate victims who were slaughtered due to the Manchin’s instructing the WV Office of Miners’ Health Safety and Training to not enforce regulations which would have spared them!

    What really galls me about Nyden and Voorhees is that neither had the guts to ask Rockefeller why he didn’t tell former governor Joe “Retail Government” Manchin that he was endangering miners when he told his safety regulators to not shut down the mines of mine operators if they saw repeated safety violations. Rockefeller just sat there at 2008 at the Coal Symposium while Manchin did it.

    YOU DO recall your one report in the Gazette quoting the video of Manchin don’t you Ken? As I recall, you left out the part where he introduced Rockefeller just before he went on to boast about relaxing mine safety enforcement.

    Did you also know that Manchin was pulling down more money as a coal broker (EnerSystems) than he was as our “public servant” at the time? Because the voters surely weren’t apprised of it in any Gazette article. Funny how Raese never mentioned it either, even though if he had it may well have gotten him elected.

  7. Bob Kincaid says:


    If anyone is in position both to secure the table and call people to it, wouldn’t that person be Senator Rockefeller? Are we to under stand the remark you quoted as being that call? Do you know? I don’t.

    Maybe, instead, his first call should be to the scientists. He is, after all, Chair of the Science Committee in the Senate of the United States. Here we are in mid-July, just having survived an epic storm said by a many scie tists to be of the sort we can expect from accelerating climate change, which utterly exposed the fragility of our coal-fired infrastructure and another data set appears to show the vast and unjust trade-offs we make between mountaintop removal and its victims.

    While seating Appalachian human rights activists around a table with coal executives might have some future promise, the greater work, the more urgent work, is to seat the scientists in front of the Science Committee and let them explain, in patient detail, the real, all-too-human costs the coal industry (particularly the Mountaintop Removal industry) imposes daily, even hourly, upon people who have had no voice in the determination of their own lives and well-being.

    Such a hearing should be called with all the urgency befitting a public health crisis of the magnitude the science indicates. It is the single most important action Senator Rockefeller can take.

  8. Rhonda Brooks says:

    Senator Rockefeller is intent as Obama is to destroy coal industry. Obama made it know very well 4 years ago. And anyone, any state that continues using coal for energy in any amount, Obama said under his Cap & Trade bill will pay dearly for it. Obama will “punish” WV by “quadrupling” our energy rates. How Senator ROckefeller can “justify” his going along with ‘punishing’ citizens in this state because ‘coal’ is ‘cheaper’ and less expensive than other means of energy, boggles the mind. I want to know whose going to make all that money from solar and wind power? And that’s not even an option as the deceived will find out. Who doesn’t know that the sun does ‘not’ always shine and the wind does ‘not’ always blow? Obama’s ‘dreams’ are just that; dreams. Follow the money. The ‘green’ movement is a money-making scheme that collects from the taxpayers by ‘quadrupling’ their energy rates on their utility bills. That is Obama’s words of promise for coal-producing states, not mine. I understand we can’t really trust Obama’s words after past 4 years, but I’d bet this one you can. It’s time WV sends Senator Rockefeller back to New York. He’s never been a friend of coal or cheaper energy for the poorest state in the nation. After 30+ years in the Senate, we’re still at bottom of list for education and jobs and other things. That’s not much of a record to run on.

  9. Todd Browning says:

    Goodbye Rocky, goodbye. You have never been a friend of coal or pushed any alternative source of employement for those of us in the south. I wonder where he visited? I betcha it wasn’t south of the river in the holy city was it? It shaocks me that if WV is sooo much aginast coal, then what is your alternative for miners? Don’t you realize that by not getting behind the industry and making real changes that benefit us all you destroy the economy here in the south and who will absorb the losses? You could always rasie taxes on everyone else afterall it is the democratic way now isn’t it. You used coal to get elected to the governor’s seat, years ago and you have been in DC for many years and nothing has changed in WV. You now turn your back on who got you elected.

  10. Bob Kincaid says:

    Rhonda, do you realize, as Ken has noted on Coal Tattoo, that coal jobs INCREASED in West Virginia during the first three years of President Obama’s administration? Gauging by the nature and tenor of your remarks, it appears you don’t.

    Actually, the sun does always shine. It merely shines on different parts of the planet at different, but predictable, parts of our 24 hour rotational cycle, and has done so for a few billion years, and may be expected so to do for a few billion more. The question is whether that light will shine on a planet that still is tolerable to human life.

    There are places in this country where the wind blows almost constantly, as well. Entire countries, contrary to coal industry propaganda, are making wind and solar power the majority of their energy mix and no one is, as the coal industry likes to say, “freezing to death in the dark.”

    Like it or not, coal WILL be gone in West Virginia specifically and Central Appalachia generally, relatively sooner rather than later. Just ask Rep. Nick Rahall. He said “twenty-five years” is what we can expect. The question, then, is what do we do about that fact? What happens when, as we have seen lately, the coal companies lay off workers not because of a fictitious Obama Administration “War on Coal,” but because coal simply can no longer compete in the free market? Who will the coal industry blame for job losses it creates itself because it cannot match natural gas prices? My guess? They’ll blame their own workers for wanting to be paid too much money.

  11. Ken Ward Jr. says:

    Cesco Estep,

    Thanks for your comments.

    Regarding Dr. Nyden and Ms. Vorhees, I don’t believe you or I were present for their interviews with Sen. Rockefeller, and I don’t believe the entire interviews were published or broadcast — so it’s unfair for you to allege that either of them didn’t have “the guts” to ask a particular question. Further, just because someone in the media has a different idea of what questions are important to ask than you doesn’t mean they don’t have guts. Dr. Nyden, for one, is among the bravest journalists I’ve ever had the privilege to work with.

    Regarding Sen. Manchin’s comments about enforcement policies, I don’t believe you describe them accurately when you say he told them “to not shut down the mines of mine operators if they saw repeated safety violations.” I don’t believe he was talking about “repeated safety violations,” but instead was saying mine operators should get a chance to fix a problem first, before facing tougher enforcement if such problems are repeated. There’s a more detailed discussion of this issue, with links to Manchin’s statements, on this Coal Tattoo post, for anyone who wants to review that territory.

    Finally, regarding the reporting on Sen. Manchin’s coal broker days, I would refer readers to this post, which covered the matter in detail,

    Thanks again for your comments, Ken.

  12. Michael J. Criste, II says:


    What types of changes are you referring to in terms of the coal industry? You must realize that the coal companies are not going to go out of their way to hire more man-power than they need to get the job done. Which these days isn’t much. As Bob Kincaid previously stated, the number of coal jobs in WV actually went up during Obama’s first 3 years in office, but yet, how many people does that still leave unemployed and below the poverty line in the southern part of the state? The answer: too many. So please don’t think for one second that getting behind the industry is going to change anything for the state of WV or its residents. The key is to find alternative methods to stimulate the economy, especially in McDowell, Logan, Mingo, Boone, etc. And if it can be done to not only provide more jobs than the coal industry does now, but also not endanger WV’s environment or its people…even better.

Leave a Reply