Coal Tattoo

Gazette photo by Chip Ellis

For West Virginia’s political writers and talk-show hosts, yesterday’s announcement by Rep. Shelley Moore Capito that she would seek the U.S. Senate seat currently held by Sen. Jay Rockefeller was just the sort of thing to be thankful for: A big post-holiday weekend story that allows them to unleash a barrage of name-dropping for who might seek Rep. Capito’s House seat and fill their days with speculation about whether Sen. Rockefeller will really run for another term.

What the announcement is likely to mean for the rest of us is two more years of ridiculous “war on coal” rhetoric trying to make the race about President Obama, rather than about which of the two Senate candidates would better serve West Virginia and the nation. Certainly, coal industry folks who are already out there promoting Rep. Capito’s Senate candidacy aren’t interested in a realistic and rational discussion of coal’s current problems, the projections for its continued decline, or a focus on figuring out how Appalachia’s coalfield communities can somehow navigate all of this and come out the other side stronger and with a better long-term economic outlook.

Make no mistake: The coal industry wants to make this Senate race all about the Obama “war on coal”. And the career political consultants and public relations hangers-on that make a living off these misleading advertising campaigns would like nothing more than to start things right now.

If you wondered at all who the coal industry is backing, look no further than this morning’s Gazette article:

Chris Hamilton, vice president of the West Virginia Coal Association, attended Capito’s formal announcement at the Capitol. He said his organization is likely to endorse Capito.

“We’re excited. She has always been a staunch supporter of business and our industry in West Virginia,” Hamilton said.

And if you were curious whether our state’s media will insist on having a campaign based on substance, rather than fact-challenged allegations about Sen. Rockefeller’s record on coal issues, then check out how Hoppy Kercheval described coal issues playing out in this race:

Many in the coal industry believe Rockefeller has not been a strong enough advocate for them. They point to his support of the EPA at a time when the industry is going through tough times and battling environmental regulations. One coal industry advocacy group—Citizens for Coal—has already come out in support of Capito.

As is typical for Hoppy, there’s no mention of the reality that factors beyond Obama and the EPA are much bigger drivers in what’s happening with West Virginia coal, things like the mining out of quality reserves (see here and here) and the low price of natural gas. And as is also expected, there’s really nothing there to explain that Sen. Rockefeller’s speech earlier this year was hardly an anti-coal manifesto.  One more time, just to try to get folks to understand this, here’s the key part of the speech that explains that point:

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.

There are more signs all the time that West Virginia’s facing a serious problem as the coal industry declines. Take the report on state tax collections, outlined in today’s Daily Mail by Jared Hunt:

West Virginia’s economy will likely struggle through 2015 due to an energy transition away from coal toward cheaper natural gas, state Deputy Revenue Secretary Mark Muchow told lawmakers Monday.

Muchow said the U.S. Energy Information Administration projects 8.5 percent of U.S. coal-fired power plant capacity is expected to retire by 2016.

“The decrease in coal-fired capacity will have a negative impact on West Virginia in the future,” Muchow said. “By 2020, coal production in West Virginia will be down by . . . a third compared to where it was about three years ago.”

Since coal makes up about 85 percent of the state’s mining economy, Muchow said the gains in natural gas production will have to far outpace the loss of coal production in order to maintain severance tax collections.

“For every 10 percent decrease in coal, you need a 60 percent increase in natural gas in order to offset that and keep your output about the same,” Muchow said.

But where is the discussion there of the fact that, even in prior years with greater coal tax collections, the coal industry cost state government more than the industry paid in taxes? Where is the discussion of what state leaders are going to do about the decline of coal? There isn’t one, because while the facts show that coal’s decline will continue, coal boosters in state government continue to promote the notion that better days are just around the corner, as WorkForce West Virginia Acting Executive Director Russell Fry and Division of Energy Director Jeff Herholdt told lawmakers yesterday:

“The use for coal is still growing.  The exports are still growing and predicted to grow in the next year so there are some positive ways to look at the demand for coal,” Fry told lawmakers.

Herholdt says, despite the ongoing pressures on the coal industry, he thinks it would be wrong for coal to be completely dismissed.

“We’re making the case and continuing to make the case to our President and Congress that coal is a viable energy resource and we need to insure that our nation takes advantage of this affordable, abundant resource.”

What this does is allow the political discussion to focus only on how to keep fighting against the “war on coal”, to continue a campaign against President Obama that failed nationally on Election Day. Rep. Capito made it clear yesterday that’s her plan:

Over the next two years, I have no higher priority than to continue standing up for the 2nd district and our state as we tackle the immediate fiscal crisis in the next few months and continue to stand up against the EPAs dangerous and unconstitutional crusade to dictate our nations energy policy to the detriment of West Virginians.

So in thinking about this upcoming Senate race, what West Virginians have now is not a referendum on whether we should have a coal industry — though that’s what some folks will try to make it into — but a choice between continuing to fight against a trumped up “war on coal” or facing reality and trying to sort out the challenges facing the coal industry and our coalfield communities.