Coal Tattoo

Coal is changing, so when will W.Va. catch up?

In their announcement earlier this week of a “strategic repositioning plan,” Alpha Natural Resources officials spoke some real truths about what’s happening with the coal industry in general and the Appalachian region’s coalfields in particular.

Kevin Crutchfield, Alpha’s CEO, said for example:

With fundamental changes taking place in our business, we’re taking decisive actions that set the table for Alpha to compete successfully as a leader in the global coal markets for years to come.

And Paul Vining, Alpha’s president, added:

The focus and shape of our company need to change to reflect our new business environment.

What also struck me was what was missing from Alpha’s announcement: No mention of the “war on coal”. No verbal attacks on EPA or the Obama administration. The only hint of anything like that was this:

Alpha’s rationalization efforts focus on thermal coal operations that have a cost, customer or transportation advantage. Operations that have competitive cost positions and more stable customer demand — such as supplying baseload power plants and generating units that will survive a stricter regulatory regime — will supply the majority of the company’s U.S. thermal coal output.

Don’t get me wrong. Alpha and the rest of the coal industry are still going to do their best to defeat President Obama’s re-election.  The New York Times noted recently:

Some of the mightiest players in the oil, gas and coal industries are financing an aggressive effort to defeat him, or at least press him to adopt policies that are friendlier to fossil fuels … With nearly two months before Election Day on Nov. 6, estimated spending on television ads promoting coal and more oil and gas drilling or criticizing clean energy has exceeded $153 million this year, according to an analysis by The New York Times of 138 ads on energy issues broadcast this year by the presidential campaigns, political parties, energy companies, trade associations and third-party spenders.

Just yesterday, we had reports out of Florida about another fundraiser for Republican candidate Mitt Romney co-hosted by billionaire coal operator Chris Cline.

But if you read the Alpha announcement carefully, it’s a clear statement — aimed mostly at investors, not the folks of the coalfields where Alpha operates — that the company understands fundamental changes are occurring in the energy business, and is adapting its company to deal with those changes. Steam coal, especially from Appalachia, is losing a big hunk of its market. Met coal may provide some cushion, but it’s far from clear how much. Alpha even acknowledges this is going to bring hard times for the places where it mines coal:

We must have a nimble operating model, superior cost management and an overhead structure that matches our streamlined operational footprint. We recognize these changes will impact our people, suppliers and communities in some areas where we operate. Alpha is committed to acting transparently and responsibly throughout the transition, with respectful consideration of our people and all other stakeholders.

This is in great contrast to Governor Romney’s campaign rhetoric, which is promoting the incredibly questionable notion that we have almost unlimited supplies of coal, and that if you’ll just help him get President Obama out of the White House, the good times will be rolling again in the coalfields.

And it’s certainly in contrast to the show put on today in the U.S. House of Representatives by the Republican leadership, which on its last legislative day before the general election decided to have “Stop the War on Coal Act” day, recycling bills that have already passed the House, but are going nowhere in the Senate and face a veto threat from the White House. West Virginia Reps. Shelley Moore Capito and David McKinley, both R-W.Va., were both in the thick of it.

The spectacle brought a remarkable editorial from the Roanoke Times:

The Enemies of Coal were everywhere this week after Bristol-based Alpha Natural Resources announced that it will close eight mines, including three in Virginia. About 1,200 workers will be affected, although most in the commonwealth will be reassigned to other mines.

Rep. Morgan Griffith, R-9th District, lobbed a predictable news release into the ether accusing a “group of government bureaucrats” of trying to force the coal industry out of business. Senate Republican candidate George Allen and GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney chimed in with similar screeds against President Barack Obama, the Environmental Protection Agency and, of course, their election opponents.

In truth, we are all enemies of coal, not because we wish harm on families who depend on mining for their livelihoods, but because our expectations have changed.

We still want cheap electricity. That part hasn’t changed. But we also want streams and rivers free of mercury. We want a planet that will not be suffocated by greenhouse gases before our grandchildren become grandparents.

In the past, we had to make trade-offs between two conflicting desires. But as study after study documented the terrible cost to our environment and our health from coal’s filthy byproducts, technology and the market changed, too, and offered us a cleaner and cheaper alternative in the form of natural gas.

Alpha executives acknowledged the role of competition from natural gas in their decision this week, along with the cost of environmental and health regulations. Electric utilities are building new natural gas power stations. Even Appalachian Power Co., its ties to coal seemingly forged in the Mesozoic Era, is converting some of its aging plants to natural gas.

More broadly, Alpha is reorganizing after its purchase of Massey Energy and focusing on metallurgical coal. The newly constituted company stands to benefit from pent-up demand from China, where infrastructure investments continue at a pace that simply doesn’t exist here, in part because economic reforms have been frozen by partisan bickering in Washington, D.C.

The economy has changed. Alpha has changed. We have changed. Yet Republican politicians continue to shake their fists at the future. If that is all the party has to offer, then it’s time for a leadership change as well.

And over at The New York Times, the brilliant editorial writer Robert B. Semple Jr. reminds us that this wasn’t always the way Republicans handled environmental issues, in a blog post about the death of Russell Train, a lifelong Republican who served as President Nixon’s first Council on Environmental Quality Chairman and as EPA administrator:

Within hours of Mr. Train’s death, Republican leaders in the House brought to the floor a bill called “Stop the War on Coal Act, “ which seeks to weaken and in some cases overturn laws and rules protecting the very things that Mr. Train stood for – clean air, clean water, a stable climate and fair effective regulation of the big polluters, including but not exclusively the fossil fuel industry.

… In recent years, much to his surprise as an old Republican loyalist, but perfectly in keeping with his values, Mr. Train found himself working behind the scenes to defend the Obama administration and especially its embattled E.P.A. chief, Lisa Jackson, in her efforts to regulate greenhouse gas emissions linked to climate change. He was also a strong supporter of President Obama’s most important environmental achievement so far, the agreement with Detroit to double automobile efficiency and greatly reduce greenhouse gas emissions from vehicles by 2025.

One suspects, however, that his final years would have been much happier had he been spared the sight of his own party trashing much of what he worked for.

Of course, here in West Virginia, it’s not just the Republicans who want to dismantle basic environmental protections and prevent the Obama EPA from working to reduce mountaintop removal pollution, protect public health and save the global climate.

Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin, for example, wanted in on the action. And Rep. Nick J. Rahall, D-W.Va., wanted to be sure that residents of his districtwho face increased risks of birth defects and cancer because they live near mountaintop removal mining — know that he authored portions of the Republican-championed “Stop the War on Coal Act.”

Having crafted essential components of this pro-jobs bill, I am pleased that the House has spoken so strongly today in support of our coal miners and their families. The true soldiers in this war are our coal miners who simply want to do their jobs and earn an honest living to provide for their families. I have been proud to stand in the trenches and fight with our miners and I was proud to stand with them in passing this legislation today.

There was one West Virginia political leader who was willing to distance himself from all of this. Yesterday, Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., issued a statement announcing that he was introducing new legislation aimed at trying once again to jump-start carbon capture and storage technology — the only thing that could save the coal industry in a carbon-constrained world. I asked Sen. Rockefeller’s office what the senator thought of today’s doings over in the House, and this is what the senator had to say:

I’ve opposed much of this legislation in the past because it undermines important environmental and health protections without moving coal forward.

This is yet another effort by House Republicans to score political points by pushing bills they know won’t become law instead of working to find actual solutions. It’s time to stop the games and start looking toward the future, diversifying our economy in West Virginia, and laying out a path for truly clean coal technology.

Now, you may not think there’s any such thing as “clean coal,” especially is you live near a mountaintop removal mine. And you may not think that CCS is ever going to really work, be safe, or become cost effective.  But at least Sen. Rockefeller is no longer falling for the overly simple and false promise of thinking that a win over the Obama administration’s coal policies is going to mean smooth sailing for Southern West Virginia or the rest of the Appalachian coalfields.

Plans like the one Alpha announced earlier this week show that coal companies are changing. Those changes might help those companies remain profitable, protecting their shareholders from damage as the industry declines. But those plans aren’t going to protect every coal miner’s job. They aren’t going to improve our educational system or diversify our economy. West Virginians can’t count on the coal industry to do those things. Can we count on ourselves?