Coal Tattoo

As we ease into the New Year, there’s always hope that we can all change and improve — that goes for West Virginia’s political and business leaders, too. It’s sometimes had to have much hope of that, though … take the silly reactions last week when Lisa P. Jackson, the Obama administration’s Environmental Protection Agency administrator, announced she would not be staying on for the president’s second term.

Lori Kersey wrote it up for the Gazette:

The head of the West Virginia Coal Association said the resignation of Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson is good news for West Virginia.

Bill Raney, the president of the trade association that represents the majority of the state’s underground and surface coal production, said Jackson is to blame for coal’s decline in Appalachia.

“There’s been a lot of criticism directly to her specifically in court decisions and Congress,” Raney said. “They have criticized her policy regarding coal. You’ve got to conclude … that sitting in that leadership position had something to do with framing that policy.”

West Virginia’s political leaders fell all over themselves wanting to get quote on this one. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., said:

There is no question that Lisa Jackson and I definitely have our differences, but we were always able to have a respectful dialogue. I wish her well in her next endeavor. I will continue to fight for a balanced energy policy for the United States – which is exactly what we have in West Virginia – and I look forward to working with anyone willing to help bring this commonsense West Virginia approach to the 113th Congress.

And Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., said:

Administrator Jackson’s departure provides President Obama with an opportunity to invite West Virginia into the much-needed conversation about a balanced approach to our nation’s energy policy. We need an all-of-the-above approach that utilizes our powerful homegrown natural resources, including coal and natural gas.

The EPA should be a working partner in our shared goal of energy independence, job creation and environmental protection, not a punitive imperialistic hammer driven by ideological agenda.

I thank Administrator Jackson for her service and wish her well.

A punitive imperialistic hammer? Seriously?

Maybe Rep. Capito really believes that … but the New York Times had a more accurate description of how Administrator Jackson has led EPA and handled coal industry issues:

Ms. Jackson’s departure comes as many in the environmental movement are questioning Mr. Obama’s commitment to dealing with climate change and other environmental problems. After his re-election, and a campaign in which global warming was barely mentioned by either candidate, Mr. Obama said that his first priority would be jobs and the economy and that he intended only to foster a “conversation” on climate change in the coming months.

That ambivalence is a far cry from the hopes that accompanied his early months in office, when he identified climate change as one of humanity’s defining challenges. Mr. Obama put the White House’s full lobbying power behind a House cap-and-trade bill that would have limited climate-altering emissions and brought profound changes in how the nation produces and consumes energy.

But after the effort stalled in the Senate, the administration abandoned broad-scale climate change efforts, instead focusing on smaller regulatory actions largely though the Clean Air Act.

The Times’ account continued:

Ms. Jackson, the first African-American to head the E.P.A., brushed off that treatment as part of the territory and a reflection of the new partisan reality in Washington. More difficult for her was the occasional lack of support from environmental groups, who saw every compromise as a betrayal, and from the White House, which was trying to balance worries about the economy and the president’s re-election campaign against the perceived costs of tough environmental policies.

The White House rejected or scaled back a number of proposed new regulations from the environmental agency, most notably the withdrawal of a proposed new standard for ozone pollution that Ms. Jackson sought in the summer of 2011. Mr. Obama rejected the proposal on the grounds that it would be too costly for industry and local government to comply with at a time of continuing economic distress. Other new rules, including those for emissions from industrial boilers and cement factories, were either watered down or their introduction delayed after complaints from lawmakers, lobbyists and businesses.

 Not for nothing, but just a few days before the coal industry’s remarks on Lisa Jackson, we had a story that marked the four-year anniversary of the coal-ash disaster in Kingston, Tenn., and noted EPA’s continued inaction on that important issue. As we’ve written before, the facts show that EPA under Administrator Jackson and President Obama has a much more moderate record on major coal industry regulatory issues than the industry, political leaders, and local media would have the public believe.

And regardless of who President Obama picks to take over at EPA, the major challenges facing the Appalachian coal industry — declining reserves, low natural gas prices, competition from other coal basins — will still be there. In a story that my buddy Dr. Paul Nyden did over the holidays, Chris Hamilton of the West Virginia Coal Association struggled to put a good face on coal’s future in the state. It’s understandable that he would do that, given who signs his paycheck. But for elected officials to continue to ignore the realities of the ongoing coal decline in our region is not just laughable, but irresponsible. Coal may not be disappearing anytime soon from Southern West Virginia. But production is dropping, and is expected to continue to do so. It’s time to plan for that in a more comprehensive way.

Over at the West Virginia Center for Budget and Policy, Ted Boettner pointed out an interesting article from Foreign Policy. Called “Curse of Plenty,” the piece focuses on not allowing the shale-gas boom to stop policymakers from addressing more fundamental economic and societal problems:

It looks like the United States is showing the early symptoms of a particularly nasty case of the Resource Curse. The dreaded syndrome, also known as Hugo Chávezitis, tends to strike countries when they tap into large finds of oil, gas, or other valuable natural resources. Although such bonanzas clearly have their advantages, the influx of new wealth often leads countries to neglect real underlying problems or the requirements of long-term growth simply because they can spend their newfound riches to paper over their troubles. Political leaders don’t have to do the hard work of building human capital and promoting sustainable economic growth — they can just coast along, riding the benefits of the resource boom.

You can understand the appeal, especially to America’s dysfunctional governing class. That is precisely what is so worrisome about all the talk of how these new energy finds will literally fuel the country’s next period of economic expansion. You heard it during the recent presidential campaign from both candidates. You heard it in a slew of reports from Wall Street and international organizations. America is on the verge of energy independence. It will soon overtake Saudi Arabia as an energy producer. It will no longer have to worry about the messy realities of the Middle East. New boomtowns like those springing up in Canada and North Dakota will spread across the United States. Cheap energy will attract foreign investment! Revitalize U.S. manufacturing! Help America beat China and India!

The same theories apply to the ongoing effort by our political leaders to ignore coal’s decline. If they can push the realities to the side (with a little help from local media), and continue to make coal’s problems all about Obama and EPA (they lost that election, by the way), then our elected officials don’t have to do the “hard work of building human capital and promoting sustainable economic growth…”  Instead, they can just coast along, and we can keep pretending our problems are someone else’s fault.