Coal Tattoo

Friday roundup, Nov. 23, 2012

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A vessel is seen carrying coal on the river Rhine in Duisburg, Germany, Monday, Nov. 19, 2012.(AP Photo/Frank Augstein)

Just after the election, the Herald-Dispatch over in Huntington published an interesting op-ed by Kenova native Cliff Staten headlined, “King Coal politics more complicated than industry lets on“:

The massive media offensive by the coal industry against new EPA rules and EPA enforcement of current rules dominates the politics of the state. Of course, it is important to remember that the coal industry has dominated state politics since the early 1900s. It is an industry that typically gets whatever it wants and rarely compromises. The current debate is much more complicated than what the coal industry suggests in its 30-second sound bites and on its billboards.

West Virginia coal is facing intense competition from the cheaper and more efficient coal industry in the west, especially Wyoming. West Virginia coal has become much more expensive in recent decades due to the depletion of easily accessible coal reserves and much higher unionization rates compared with easily accessible coal and very low unionization rates in Wyoming.

The piece continued:

Coal will still be important to the state beyond my lifetime, but it is time for the state to begin seriously to discuss and chart a course for the long run: a post-coal era. As a proud native of West Virginia and a union supporter, I believe that discussion of the state’s post-coal era must include all involved, not just the powerful coal industry. It should take place not only in the halls of government but also in neighborhoods, the small towns, the cities, the union halls, the Chambers of Commerce, and perhaps most importantly in the schools and universities at all grade levels.

It is the current students and young people who have the most to gain or lose in the long run. If we believe that the economy of West Virginia is in a crisis, it is time for ALL to make sure there is a viable economy for our posterity. Simplistic slogans and solutions will not address the real problem.

And writing for the Appalachian Voices “Front Porch” blog, Matt Wasson had an interesting analysis of the coalfield results of this year’s presidential race:

If Romney had won, it would be the rural, white demographic in coal-mining regions that would be the focus of the “How he won” stories, not the historic impact of the Latino, women’s and youth vote. Pundits would be talking about how anti-regulation messages like “stop Obama’s war on coal” resonated with the electorate and how Republicans won a mandate to roll back environmental and public health regulations.

Exhibit A of that winning Republican strategy would have been Boone County, W.Va., which produces more coal than any other county east of the Mississippi River, and saw the largest pro-Republican swing (R+42%) of all 3,140 counties in the U.S. between 2008 and 2012. Of course, West Virginia is hardly a swing state, but the same pattern holds for southwestern Virginia, where the vote margin in the six coal mining counties swung in favor of Republicans by 24% — by far the best showing in a state that Romney barely lost.

Of course, some will look at maps of where Republicans made gains and say “so what? The Republican strategy failed.”

That is a fair point, from a purely political perspective. But there’s a lot of important information in these maps for those of who us aren’t concerned with electing Democrats, but rather with reducing greenhouse gas emissions, accelerating the deployment of clean energy solutions, ending mountaintop removal coal mining, or all-that-and-then-some. They show the political price the administration paid for EPA’s actions to address greenhouse gas emissions, mercury pollution from power plants and the impacts of mountaintop removal mining on streams.

In other words, the maps demonstrate environmental and public health advocates’ collective failure to provide “political cover” in a politically critical region of the country for the EPA actions we demanded. They show why legislators tend to get defeated for supporting the issues we care about and they help explain the embarrassing public displays of obeisance to the coal industry by politicians who survive, like West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin, who shot a bullet through the climate bill in a 2010 campaign ad, and Congressman Nick Rahall, who jumped out of an Airplane in support of mountaintop removal coal mining.

Nevertheless, as much as the coal industry would like us to believe that these anti-Obama voting trends are a backlash against the economic impact of EPA rules on hard-working people, there is simply no economic data to back that up. Mining jobs haven’t declined in most areas, even though demand for coal has dropped precipitously due to competition from natural gas.

The real reason for the pro-Republican swing is that coal industry-sponsored groups, with the assistance of billionaire-funded right-wing groups like Americans for Prosperity, were on the ground in coal-mining regions for the past three years holding rallies, putting up billboards, generating massive turnout to public hearings and basically doing the kind of effective community organizing that is straight out of the progressive playbook.

As for what we can do better next time around, Bill McKibben got the soul-searching process for “climate people” going in the right direction even before the election was over, blaming our lack of progress on the fact that “we keep waiting for our political leaders to lead.” In other words, we need to stop worrying so much about what presidential candidates are or are not saying and get out and start building a movement of people talking about it to their neighbors, to their newspapers and to their elected officials. That is exactly what McKibben is doing with his 20-city “Do The Math” tour that kicked off the day after the election.

But the lesson from the climate silence in the last election is that we can’t just build a movement in urban areas. We also need a ground game in the remote corners of swing states where national elections are won and lost, where campaign narratives are targeted and where climate activists rarely tread. We need a strategy to provide key members of Congress and presidential candidates the kind of political cover that they need to support our issues without getting slaughtered in the next election.

In this Thursday, Nov. 8, 2012 photo, TVA contract workers remove coal ash from the edge of the Emory River next to the Kingston Fossil Plant in Kingston, Tenn. as part of the cleanup from the December 2008 spill. (AP Photo/Knoxville News Sentinel, Michael Patrick)

Over on Forbes.com, Ken Silverstein is predicting that the Obama administration will weaken its plans for the first-ever federal regulations on the handling and disposal of toxic coal ash:

Despite its efforts to unseat President Obama, the coal sector is now working closely with the White House on certain issues. The Obama administration, in fact, may acquiesce to the industry’s concern over how coal ash would be regulated.

While its environmental backers won’t be happy, the president and his Environmental Protection Agency will probably opt to continue regulating that coal combustion byproduct as a solid waste, as opposed to a hazardous waste. The difference is that solid wastes are allowed to be recycled and used in such things as cement and dry wall. A hazardous waste ruling would stigmatize that coal ash and would essentially dry up those secondary markets, which would also increase the amount of refuse that must be dispensed.

But will any weakening of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency be enough to satisfy the industry? Not if the response to EPA’s softening of its latest air pollution rules is any guide, as Bloomberg reported:

In response to industry complaints, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has proposed softening its rule to cut mercury and other pollution from new coal-fired power plants.

An industry trade group says the changes, which include a slightly higher level of allowable mercury emissions, don’t go far enough to ensure coal remains an alternative to natural gas. The EPA released its revised rule Nov. 16.

“I’m not sure it’s sufficient to fix the problem, even for new sources,” said Scott Segal, director of the Electric Reliability Coordinating Council, a utility group that includes Atlanta-based Southern Co.

Meanwhile, Bill Howley had a commentary on his Power Line blog about how West Virginia isn’t really focused on energy reliability:

There is lots of talk at the WV PSC about reliability. It is in the form of scare tactics, as when the lead PSC lawyer told the WV Supreme Court that there would be “blackouts and brownouts” if the Court overturned the PSC’s approval of TrAIL (I saw this little psychodrama personally.). It is also in the form of long overdue, but minimal new performance standards. And it is in the form of a failure to take any real steps to ensure reliability for WV’s distribution system.

And in other news and commentary:

— The Washington Post’s WonkBlog reports on what could happen if the 1,200 new coal-fired power plants being considered around the globe are actually built.

— Jessica Lilly at West Virginia Public Broadcasting reports on the latest mine safety efforts up at Wheeling Jesuit University.

This story from EnergyBiz.com describes the recent increases in coal transportation costs.