Coal and the party platforms

September 5, 2012 by Ken Ward Jr.

First Lady Michelle Obama waves after speaking at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C., on Tuesday, Sept. 4, 2012. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

My previous post, “Is climate change just a joke to the GOP?” generated a little bit of discussion about party platforms. So now that the Democratic National Convention is in full swing,  I thought we should take at least a quick look at what the Democratic and Republican platforms have to say about the coal industry and its future.

Reading party platforms might not be the most exciting thing to do. But the platforms are a chance for both parties to carefully craft what they believe in — so they  make important reading for anyone who wants to actually be an educated voter. The New York Times did one brief look comparing the two platforms and had this tidbit of interest to Coal Tattoo readers:

While the Democrats failed to enact the promised climate change legislation, they still call it a top priority. “We know that global climate change is one of the biggest threats of this generation — an economic, environmental and national security catastrophe in the making,” their platform says, adding that they “affirm the science of climate change.”

This year’s Republican platform dropped the 2008 section on “addressing climate change responsibly.” The new platform states that it opposes “any and all cap-and-trade legislation.”

Perhaps also of interest, given concerns about safety and health of workers at non-union coal mines — not to mention the threats to United Mine Workers of America retiree and pension plans — is this, also reported by the Times:

The Democratic platform says “the right to organize and collectively bargain is a fundamental American value” and opposes “the attacks on collective bargaining that Republican governors and state legislatures are mounting in states around the country.” The Republicans support right-to-work laws, which weaken unions, and salute “the Republican governors and state legislators who have saved their states from fiscal disaster by reforming their laws governing public employee unions.”

But let’s take a closer look …

First, the Democratic platform (read it here), includes one mention of coal, and not surprisingly, they made sure it had the word “clean” in front of it:

We can move towards a sustainable energy-independent future if we harness all of America’s great natural resources. That means an all-of-the-above approach to developing America’s many energy resources, including wind, solar, biofuels, geothermal, hydropower, nuclear, oil, clean coal, and natural gas. President Obama has encouraged innovation to reach his goal of generating 80 percent of our electricity from clean energy sources by 2035.

In this Thursday, Aug. 30, 2012 file photo, Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney addresses delegates during the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla.  (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall, File)

Not surprisingly, the Democratic platform emphasizes a push toward natural gas drilling:

Harnessing our natural gas resources needs to be done in a safe and responsible manner, which is why the Obama administration has proposed a number of safeguards to protect against water contamination and air pollution. We will continue to advocate for the use of this clean fossil fuel, while ensuring that public and environmental health and workers’ safety are protected.

It’s worth noting that this “all-of-the-above” energy plank is quite a change from the 2008 Democratic platform language, which pledged to free our nation from the “tyranny of oil” and to “clean up our coal plants.”  Regarding coal, the 2012 platform certainly isn’t going to win any converts among industry supporters in the coalfields, but it also a far cry from a call to end mountaintop removal, which is what some citizen groups are advocating in Charlotte.

As for the Republican platform (read it here), well, it almost sounds like it was written by the folks who run the Friends of Coal PR campaign:

Coal is a low-cost and abundant energy source with hundreds of years of supply. We look toward the private sector’s development of new, state-of-the-art coal-fired plants that will be low-cost, environmentally responsible, and efficient. We also encourage research and development of advanced technologies in this sector, including coal-to-liquid, coal gasification, and related technologies for enhanced oil recovery.

The current Administration—with a President who publicly threatened to bankrupt anyone who builds a coal-powered plant—seems determined to shut down coal production in the United States, even though there is no cost-effective substitute for it or for the hundreds of thousands of jobs that go with it as the nation’s largest source of electricity generation.

We will end the EPA’s war on coal and encourage the increased safe development in all regions of the nation’s coal resources, the jobs it produces, and
the affordable, reliable energy that it provides for America. Further, we oppose any and all cap and trade legislation.

Of course, we know that war is war, and that a public policy debate isn’t war, no matter what the industry and the GOP say. And we know that the Republicans and the industry continually twist then-candidate Obama’s remarks about bankruptcy coal-fired power plant promoters. And we know that coal jobs are higher now than they were when the current administration began, and that a variety of factors — not just EPA rules — are behind the string of layoffs so far this year.

The reality is that neither party platform really speaks the challenges that confront West Virginia’s coalfield communities: Increased competition from natural gas and other coal regions, a declining base of economically extractable reserves, serious water quality and human health issues linked to large-scale surface mining, the deadly toll of black lung disease.

On the Republican side, West Virginia GOP leaders — such as Reps. Shelley Moore Capito and David McKinley, and candidates Bill Maloney and John Raese — are pretty firmly on board with their party’s agenda related to coal that it’s as if they didn’t even acknowledge these challenges exist. On the Democratic side, most of West Virginia’s leaders — Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, Sen. Joe Manchin and Rep. Nick Rahall — are also so firmly on board with that same Republican platform that they didn’t even want to travel to Charlotte to try to talk with fellow Democrats about how the national party might do more to help our state with these challenges.

Only Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., appears to be willing to tell West Virginians what we don’t want to hear:

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.

6 Responses to “Coal and the party platforms”

  1. Celeste Monforton says:

    Great post Ken. Thanks for digging up the 2008 Democratic platform. Just another reminder of the change we hoped to see, and how President Obama and his Administration have backed away—giant steps away—-from those commitments.

  2. Mike H says:

    The democrat party’s platform, by any reasonable metric, and the polices that have been implemented by the EPA will force the premature retirement of nearly 10% of the coal fleet by 2015, forcing consumers to pay more for a less reliable product.

    http://tinyurl.com/d5s29o8

    That’s bad policy and bad politics. I don’t think people realize the effects this will have on their day to day lives.

    Not only will these policies be detrimental to West Virginai, but it will also devastate coal producing regions throughout the nation. Navajo and Hopi communities in Northern Arizona, already some of the poorest in the nation, are going to be devastated by the closure of the Navajo Generating Station (a guarantee according to my sources at APS) and the Kayenta mine which supplies it and the elimination of close to 1000 very high paying jobs for locals.

    http://tinyurl.com/cxm3d52

    I noticed an article of yours you linked to suggested that nuclear waste cannot be disposed of safely. I would suggest you better educate yourself on this subject because nuclear waste is a political, not technical issue.

    http://tinyurl.com/4ygsyau

  3. Ken Ward Jr. says:

    Mike H,

    Of course, the “premature retirement” of these plants is one way to put it. Another way to put it is that these are the oldest, dirtiest, and most outdated and most inefficient facilities in the fleet. The Congressional Research Service provided a good overview of this, http://assets.opencrs.com/rpts/R41914_20110711.pdf and a lengthy article by one of AP’s national environmental writers also documents this, http://articles.boston.com/2011-12-22/nation/30542262_1_power-plants-pollution-controls-toxic-air-pollution

    On top of that, it’s very, very clear that the current decline and coming collapse of the Appalachian coal industry — certainly the Southern West Virginia coal industry — has more to do with other factors (declining quality of reserves, competition from other coal basins) than with EPA rules. The West Virginia Center for Budget and Policy, using EIA figures, has made this point very clearly, http://blog.wvpolicy.org/2012/07/10/ending-regulations-wont-save-central-appalachian-coal.aspx

    In addition, the situation regarding the Navajo Generating Station isn’t as clear-cut as you make it sound. As the Desert News has reported (http://tinyurl.com/9dnyk9e ):

    “… Some Navajos support tougher pollution controls.
    “I believe that they could eliminate a great amount of whatever it is that they are accused of releasing into the atmosphere,” said Navajo historian Wally Brown, who operates a tourist attraction called Navajo Village near the plant.
    … Brown, for one, thinks the original agreements didn’t sufficiently compensate the Navajos for their air, water and coal. He doesn’t advocate a shutdown of the plant but believes others could step in to run it.
    “There are other companies that would be right there to take over,” Brown said. “And we might be able to have a better agreement and better relations with them.”

    And finally, I’m sorry, but I am not sure what article of mine you’re talking about concerning nuclear waste.

    Ken.

  4. Mike H says:

    “Another way to put it is that these are the oldest, dirtiest, and most outdated and most inefficient facilities in the fleet.”

    That’s simply not true. For one, age has very little to do with a plants performance. Aside from foundations, very little original equipment remains in a plant for its lifetime. Turbines, pumps, controls, burners, scrubbers, material handling, and every other system is upgraded on a regular basis. A well maintained older plant operates far better than it did when it was constructed. As for these being the most “inefficient facilities in the fleet”, the data from the EIA doesn’t support that contention either. In 2012, the average heat rate of prematurely retired facilities was 10,714 BTU/KWh.

    http://tinyurl.com/c8nr26b

    Given the “average” heat rate is 10,400 Btu/kWh, the facilities prematurely retired in 2012 are only slightly less efficient.

    http://tinyurl.com/d3oto2q

    “The West Virginia Center for Budget and Policy, using EIA figures, has made this point very clearly”

    I don’t know what EIA figures they were using, but their novel interpretation of the EIA’s data is in stark contrast with the conclusion in the EIA’s actual report.

    “The decision to retire a power plant is an economic one. Plant owners must determine whether a plant’s future operations will be
    profitable. Environmental regulations, low natural gas prices, higher coal prices, and future demand for electricity all are key factors
    in the decision.”

    “Over the next 25 years, the share of electricity generation from coal falls to 38 percent, well below the 48-percent share seen as
    recently as 2008, due to slow growth in electricity demand, increased competition from natural gas and renewable generation,
    and the need to comply with new environmental regulations.”

    Clearly the EIA considers new environmental regulations a significant factor in determining what role coal fired generation will play in the future, despite the West Virginia Center for Budget and Policy’s claims to the contrary.

    http://tinyurl.com/bpnnuwh

    Of particular note to West Virginia coal miners, the report notes that closures of coal fired power plants will be concentrated right in two regions, the Reliability First Corporation and the SERC Reliability Corporation. Coal plants prefer to use local fuel because transportation costs can be nearly equal to fuel costs and since the lions share of plants closing are in the area that West Virginia coal mines cater to, it will hit them particularly hard.

    http://tinyurl.com/d46dazp

    “Some Navajos support tougher pollution controls”

    I believe that’s what’s referred to as “false balance”. You know, find one lone voice … the “some Navajo” referred to in the article … and base a response off of him. If the current operators don’t think they can keep the plant profitable with th regulatory scheme coming into place, what makes anyone think another operator will be able to? After all, Navajo Generating Station has been paid off for quite some time so the only costs to the current owners are O&M and fuel. If another entity purchased the plant they would also have to finance the purchase as well as O&M and fuel costs.

  5. Ken Ward Jr. says:

    Mike H,

    Regarding the Energy Information Administration, please show me where they say that environmental regulations are a “significant factor” because I haven’t seen them use that phrase … Rather, here’s what we’ve discussed before on Coal Tattoo that EIA has said (http://blogs.wvgazette.com/coaltattoo/2012/08/08/alpha-records-2-billion-with-a-b-loss-in-quarter/ ):

    “Although environmental regulations have an effect, it is low natural gas prices relative to historic coal prices and drops in electricity demand that are driving the retirements, an Energy Information Administration official said in late June at a Bipartisan Policy Center event in Washington that focused on the EIA’s Annual Energy Outlook 2012.
    “Director of EIA’s Office of Electricity, Coal, Nuclear and Renewables Analysis Alan Beamon said that “it’s the market forces that are pushing it out of the market,” referring to coal-fired generation. He added that “to the degree that it leads to retirements, it is often because these plants are marginal in the first place. … It’s really the demand situation and the coal price versus gas price that is really making those determinations.” ”

    In addition, the folks at the WV Center for Budget and Policy were pretty clear what EIA data they were using. Read their post and follow their links.

    And as for the Navajo Generating Station, any quick review of major news reports on the issue finds that there are a variety of views held by local and native peoples on those issues. For example, http://summitcountyvoice.com/2012/01/20/native-american-groups-challenge-federal-study-of-navajo-generating-station-biggest-source-of-southwest-air-pollution/

    Ken.

  6. Charles says:

    To add to the discussion about indigenous communities in northern Arizona, there’s at least two groups that have been fighting the coal industry, federal government and others over resource extraction and a coal slurry pipeline in the Big Mountain/Black Mesa area. See Black Mesa Indigenous Support and Black Mesa Water Coalition for more.

    http://blackmesais.org/background/

    http://www.blackmesawatercoalition.org

    I’d say they were none to disappointed with the generating station closing.

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