Coal priorities: Rockefeller, Manchin offer contrasts

January 24, 2013 by Ken Ward Jr.

 Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.V., announces his plans to not seek re-election for a sixth term, in Charleston, W.Va. Friday Jan. 11, 2013. (AP Photo/Tyler Evert)

It’s the time of year when federal and state political leaders make big announcements about their legislative agendas for the coming year. And in just a few sentences in their respective press releases on the matter, West Virginia’s two U.S. Senators offered a clear contrast about their values and the direction they want to take our state.

First, Sen. Joe Manchin.  In his news release yesterday, Sen. Manchin listed this among his legislative priorities for the new Congress:

EPA Fair Play Act: This bill would rein in EPA’s overreach, preventing the agency from revoking permits that have already been legally granted, protecting jobs and investments in West Virginia and promoting American energy independence and security.

In case anybody isn’t clear on this, here’s the Congressional Research Service description of the “EPA Fair Play Act” (at least the version introduced in the last Congress):

Amends the Federal Water Pollution Control Act (commonly known as the Clean Water Act) to remove the authority of the Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to prohibit the specification of any defined area as a disposal site for discharges of materials into waters of the United States, or to restrict the use of any defined area for specification as a disposal site, once the Secretary of the Army has issued a permit for dredged or fill material.

That’s right, Sen. Manchin considers stopping EPA from doing what it did in the Spruce Mine case to be one of the top eight issues (that’s how many priorities he listed) facing the United States of America, right up there with stopping the war in Afghanistan and creating a commission to examine the causes and possible solutions to mass violence like the massacre of school children last month in Newtown, Conn. While Sen. Manchin sometimes talks a good game about creating a ‘balanced’ national energy policy that includes coal, doing so isn’t among his legislative priorities for the new Congress. Making sure that those troublesome folks at EPA keep their nose out of the coal industry’s business, though … Sen. Manchin wants Congress to get moving on that.

Then, there’s Sen. Rockefeller. In his press release this week, he included among his legislative priorities:

Protect workers’ safety and benefits.  Rockefeller will continue working to make sure that West Virginia’s miners and workers are safe while on the job.  Early in the new Congress, he will reintroduce his comprehensive mine safety bill to better protect coal miners’ health and safety.  He will also continue to fight to prevent companies from unfairly cutting the health and retirement benefits that West Virginians have earned throughout their careers.

Use our energy resources safely and effectively.  Rockefeller is working to make sure that West Virginia’s growing natural gas industry is as safe as possible, focusing on truck and transmission pipeline safety, particularly in light of the explosion in Sissonville.  And he is also working to secure coal’s future by developing new legislation aimed at clean coal technology deployment.

So, Sen. Manchin wants to be sure to get the federal government off the coal industry’s back, while Sen. Rockefeller wants to make sure federal mine safety regulators have all the tools they need to prevent another Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster and otherwise ensure the safety and health of our nation’s miners. Sen. Manchin talks a lot about coal mine safety, and I don’t doubt that he’s sincere. But the fact is he doesn’t list more safety reform legislation among his top legislative priorities for the new Congress.

Sen. Manchin’s mind is firmly set on protecting the coal industry’s status quo, ensuring minimal permit reviews for strip-mining applications that ignore the growing science about mountaintop’s removal’s clear damage to the environment, the emerging science that links living near mountaintop removal to serious health problems like cancer and birth defects, and the market realities that led one of the state’s bigger mountaintop removal operators to announce plans to get out of that part of the coal business.

Sen. Rockefeller? Well … uhm … he’s “working to secure coal’s future by developing new legislation aimed at clean coal technology deployment.”

OK,  it’s not like Sen. Rockefeller is sponsoring the legislation that would require regulators to truly take into account mountaintop removal’s impacts on public health before they issue new permits. But in the politics of West Virginia, where elected officials and candidates feel the need to pledge allegiance to coal almost daily, Sen. Rockefeller’s recent comments — and at least one significant vote — are about the best we can hope for right now.

And the problem for Sen. Rockefeller is that, as he did with legislation to block EPA regulation of toxic coal ash, the senator co-sponsored the EPA Fair Play Act.  We don’t know yet what Sen. Rockefeller’s “new legislation aimed at clean coal technology deployment” will look like. But we know that he previously opposed climate change legislation that had tons of money in it for coal industry greenhouse emissions control technology and that even the United Mine Workers said ensured the future of the coal industry.

Keep in mind as well that Sen. Rockefeller pushed his own legislation to block EPA from issuing regulations to force coal-fired power plants to do something about their greenhouse gas emissions. Top environmental and energy officials within the Obama administration are now talking like the EPA will sometime this term issue try to build on their proposed rules to limit greenhouse emissions from new coal-fired power plants with a plan to regulate carbon dioxide from existing coal plants. The Natural Resources Defense Council last month floated a detailed proposal for how EPA could do this, and the proposal got a lot of attention following President Obama’s remarks about climate change during his inaugural address, with the New York Times, for example, reporting:

According to estimates from the Natural Resources Defense Council, emissions from current coal-fired plants could be reduced by more than 25 percent by 2020, yielding large health and environmental benefits at relatively low cost. Such an approach would allow Mr. Obama to fulfill his 2009 pledge to reduce domestic greenhouse gas emissions by about 17 percent from 2005 levels by 2020, the group says.

“There’s a really big opportunity, perhaps bigger than most people realize,” said Dan Lashof, director of the defense council’s climate and clean air program.

Sen. Rockefeller previously offered a pretty measured response to EPA’s proposed rule for new power plants, saying:

We have known since the 2007 Supreme Court ruling that greenhouse gas emissions would be cut to meet environmental standards, and we know that coal faces intense competition from other energy sources, as investments are increasingly moving to cheaper natural gas.  In the near-term, EPA has exempted all coal-fired plants that are operating today or under construction.  But for the future, the key question is whether the new emissions standard is set so high that even the best known clean coal technologies can’t meet it, which would be bad for coal and bad for the environment. 

 CCS and other new technologies hold real and important potential for cleaner coal in the U.S. and across the globe, but the utility industry needs to have certainty for financing and deploying these technologies on a commercial scale or we won’t achieve new targets.  We need to grab hold of our own future by working together to drive clean coal technology forward.

Obviously, Sen. Rockefeller’s days in the U.S. Senate are now (voluntarily) numbered, and his announced retirement in two years comes at a time when West Virginia needs leaders on so many issues. While Sen. Rockefeller’s legislative priorities regarding coal may not seem all that progressive to many of the industry’s biggest critics, what other options do West Virginians have?

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