Coal Tattoo

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.”