Coal Tattoo

WVBA Debate moderator Charles Ryan right, with Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin and GOP challenger Bill Maloney, Photo by Craig Cunningham, Charleston Daily Mail.

If you’re wondering why your local newspaper didn’t have coverage of Tuesday night’s West Virginia gubernatorial debate — the only head-to-head meeting between Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin and GOP challenger Bill Maloney before next month’s general election — some pretty ridiculous debate rules mandated by the West Virginia Broadcasters Association led The Associated Press to simply not cover the event.

Frankly, despite efforts by some in the media to make this debate seem important, I’m not sure anybody really missed very much, at least as far as understanding the substance of what either candidate’s plans might do for our state.

And as far as coal goes, we certainly didn’t hear much new — except for one minor (and not particularly well-played) barb by Gov. Tomblin to blame U.S. Environmental Protection Agency restrictions on Republicans:

Let me just say that those regulations from the EPA were put in place under the Bush administration. That’s the reason those upgrades were made to the power plants.

Well, as we’ve talked about before on this blog, many of the Obama administration’s regulatory proposals are in fact long-awaited rules that EPA was charged with promulgating under the 1990 Clean Air Act, which was signed into law by then-President George H.W. Bush. Oddly, of course, West Virginia Democrats like to take credit for all of these power plant improvements, but leave out of their discussion the fact that most of the state’s political leadership fought — and continues to fight — like crazy to block the law from being implemented.

If you missed it and your local paper didn’t have a story on it, you can watch the debate on C-Span here.

But my guess is you’ll find that the conversation about the coal industry was pretty limited, kept well within the realm of what industry lobbyists, the business community in general, and coal-friendly politicians find acceptable.  Take a look at the questions that moderator Charles Ryan asked that mentioned coal:

— Coal has always been crucial to the state’s economy. We all know that. There’s a sweeping movement away from fossil fuels. Can you diversify the state’s economy while continuing to support coal, and tell me specifically how you would do that?

— What do you say to a coal miner and to his wife and to their children? What do you say to them about coal and how they’re hurting now?

— Utility rates continue to be an issue to West Virginians. The regulatory challenges the coal industry faces are well-documented. They’ve resulted in significant investments by utility providers in order to comply with federal environmental policies. Manufacturers, small businesses and residential ratepayers have experienced dramatic increases in utility costs. So the question is, as governor, how would you work with the Legislature, the Public Service Commission, to balance future investments in the state utilities?

For the most part, these questions led to predictable results: The two candidates arguing over which one of them will go further in pledging allegiance to the coal industry.

Now, I have known Charlie Ryan for many years. He’s a fellow Keyser, W.Va., guy. He built a very successful public relations firm and was inducted into the WVU College of Business and Economics Hall of Fame.  I’m among the many people who have learned a lot from Charlie over the years and respect what he’s accomplished and his many positive contributions to our community. But it’s worth noting for purposes of this discussion that, while he was still running Charles Ryan Associates, the firm nearly a decade ago helped the West Virginia Coal Association launch its “Friends of Coal” public relations campaign. I was there the day Charlie briefed Coal Association members on the effort, and heard him explain it:

Coal is a good neighbor – socially, environmentally and economically. We say that because we can back that up. You can’t do image without substance. Well, folks, I think the coal industry has substance, and if you tell the story with substance, you will make a difference.

The campaign was later praised by the West Virginia Chapter of the Public Relations Society of America, which said:

As the largest contributor to the state’s economy, West Virginia ’s coal industry was the target of unfair criticism. With thousands of supporters, the West Virginia Coal Association wanted to explain coal’s positive impact and bring together the support base under a unified brand. Additionally, the Association needed to communicate coal’s impact that wasn’t always recognized by those that benefit from its generosity. Through the work of Charles Ryan Associates, the campaign has obtained a strong regional presence.

That’s all well and good. But this was a statewide debate for all voters, not a meeting where the coal lobby decides who it’s going to endorse. The questions needed to reflect the broader needs of the state, the concerns of all of its citizens, and the moderator needed to challenge the candidates when they fell back into soundbites that don’t reflect reality.

Heck, even Hoppy Kercheval — when he moderated a gubernatorial debate a year ago — asked Tomblin and Maloney about global warming and mountaintop removal.

Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin (right) and Republican challenger Bill Maloney shake hands before their debate Tuesday night at the Clay Center. Photo by Craig Cunningham, Charleston Daily Mail.

And I’m not the only one who thinks that the moderator could have done a better job. The notion that we need a much broader discussion about coal that this debate allowed is catching on around our state. Tweeting about the debate, the State Journal’s Taylor Kuykendall raised some good questions about what wasn’t included: Coal mine safety (though Tomblin mentioned it in passing in his closing statement), low prices for natural gas and their influence on coal’s marketability, creation of a “future fund” to sock away coal tax dollars for infrastructure and education projects. Maybe some of these things would have been brought up, if the broadcasters association — hosts of the debate and author of its silly media rules — would have allowed Mountain Party candidate Jesse Johnson to take part.

Instead, what we had was, a premise of the coal-related questions that environmental and safety regulations are little more than a drag on commerce, something that political leaders in our state have to either fight or find some way to limit. There was no mention of coal’s huge hidden costs, or the growing science that links mountaintop removal not only to environmental damage, but public health problems. Charlie Ryan didn’t ask the candidates what they planned to do on the state level to fight the deadly resurgence of black lung disease — and he certainly didn’t ask what they would say to the widows and orphans of our next coal-mining disaster.

This debate could have served as a great opportunity to press both candidates to back off their “war on coal” rhetoric and admit publicly that until this year, coal jobs were up under the Obama administration, and that the industry’s current decline has more to do with a variety of other factors than with anything EPA is doing.

No where was the weakness in the questioning more obvious than when Gov. Tomblin went on a riff about coal layoffs, saying:

We certainly hope that, as the world economy picks back up, that the demand for coal will go back up and a lot of these miners will go back to work. A lot of things were out of our control. We had a very warm winter this year. That’s one of the reasons we had a glut of steam coal on the ground in West Virginia. Because of what’s going on in Europe and Asia, the world market out there, the demand for metallurgical coal was declining somewhat. But experts are predicting that will go back up in the months to come.

Maybe it’s true that the steel-making coal market will go back up. But wouldn’t this have been a great place for Charlie Ryan to jump in and ask both candidates about the consistent forecasts that show major declines will continue in the Appalachian coal industry, and ask them both for their plans for dealing with those declines?

Writing in the Lexington Herald-Leader this week, Natural Resources Defense Council President Frances Beinecke suggested some great questions about the coal industry and energy issues in general that could be asked in tonight’s vice presidential debate, for example:

— Led by President George H.W. Bush more than two decades ago, Congress ordered the Environmental Protection Agency to cut our nation’s toxic air pollution, more than 40 percent of which comes from coal-burning plants. The Obama administration is doing so. Is that somehow unfair to the coal industry, or is it the right thing to do for the country?

— In 2005, the nation got half its electricity from coal and 19 percent from natural gas. Since then, the price utility companies pay for natural gas has plunged 62 percent. During the first six months of this year, natural gas generated 30 percent of the nation’s electricity, while coal’s share dropped to 35 percent. Is coal losing ground because of political attacks? Or is this an industry reeling from larger forces of technological and economic change?

— Are temporary jobs a fair exchange for the permanent destruction of vast reaches of wild lands and waters, or is the nation better served by preserving special places for future generations?

— We’ve just come through a summer of blistering heat and withering drought that wiped out more than 70 percent of the Kentucky corn crop and 60 percent of our pasture nationwide. Between January and August, we had the hottest first eight months of any year on record across the continental United States. Should carbon emissions from coal-fired plants be reduced, or is that too great an imposition on the coal industry?

As Beinecke concludes:

Coal has a long history in this country, and it continues to supply more than a third of our electricity. Americans, though, have paid a steep price for our use of this energy source, which has ravaged our environment and undermined our health.

It’s time we asked more of this industry. It’s time we held those who profit from pollution to account. That’s not a war on coal. It’s a commitment to our future.