Coal Tattoo

Friday roundup, Feb. 8, 2013

Sakiba Colic, left, and Semsa Hadzo, right,  exchange jokes and laugh outside the shaft of the coal mine in Breza, 20 kms north of Sarajevo, Bosnia, after completing their 8-hour shift at 450 meters under ground on Wednesday, Jan. 16, 2013.  The mine in Breza is the only one in Bosnia where a group of women work deep underground in the coal mines alongside their male colleagues, a legacy of communism, but they’re set to retire in three years, marking the end of an era for this community where almost everybody is connected to the coal mine. The shafts and elevators echo with laughter and tales of their grandchildren as women miners work alongside their male counterparts.(AP Photo/Amel Emric)

As we wait to hear what — if anything — President Obama will say about global warming next week in his State of the Union address, the Wall Street Journal reported a prediction of what could be a major policy announcement:

President Barack Obama in next week’s State of the Union speech will lay out a renewed effort to combat climate change that is expected to include using his authority to curb emissions from existing power plants, people who have talked to the administration about its plans said.

President Barack Obama is said to be pushing for specific goals on reducing greenhouse-gas emissions.

The action, building on a pledge in the second inaugural address, fits within Mr. Obama’s larger strategy of making full use of his executive authority in areas where Congress is putting up obstacles to his agenda.

The speech, to be delivered Tuesday, isn’t finished.

Mr. Obama is likely to signal he wants to move beyond proposed Environmental Protection Agency rules on emissions from new power plants and tackle existing coal-fired plants, people familiar with the administration’s plans said.

Not surprisingly, as The Washington Post reports:

Lobbyists for coal-burning utilities such as Southern Co. and Duke Energy are consulting environmental advocates and holding strategy sessions as they seek a role in shaping President Obama’s plan to combat climate change.

Obama’s emphasis on global warming in his inaugural address last month has led power and coal producers, which have fought regulation of greenhouse gas emissions from power plants, to begin crafting their own proposed rules.

“It was the hope of a lot of companies in this sector that the president would be defeated,” Manik Roy, vice president for strategic outreach at the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, an Arlington-based energy and environment policy group, said in an interview. “Now that the president has raised this as such a high issue, you’d be absolutely nuts not to be in there trying to engage constructively.”

And having lost with their scorched earth, burn-the-bridges “war on coal” campaign of fear and misinformation, the coal industry is apparently trying to make nice with the administration:

Groups such as the National Mining Association (NMA), which has sued to block or overturn Environmental Protection Agency rules in the past, appear to be taking a less confrontational approach now. The association for producers such as Arch Coal Inc. and Peabody Energy called last year’s EPA proposal that would have effectively outlawed new coal-fired power plants that lack carbon-capture technology “unprecedented and unlawful.”

For the next round of rule-making, the group is considering proposing its own regulations.

“We are looking at it internally here with our members to see if there are particular pathways that work better and can keep coal as a vibrant part of the electricity portfolio,” Hal Quinn, the NMA president, told reporters on Jan. 28. “That’s a very important question.”

The NMA, based in Washington, donated $839,250 to federal candidates for the 2012 election, with 92 percent going to Republicans. American Electric Power Co. and Southern Power, among the top coal-burning utilities in the United States, gave about three-quarters of their political donations in 2012 to Republican candidates and groups, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks campaign spending. Coal producers as a group gave 90 percent of their donations to Republicans.

But Obama was reelected. The results have left coal companies and power producers pivoting from political foes to reluctant partners of Obama.

In this Jan. 18, 2013 photo, while loaders fill trucks with as much as 220 tons of coal in the background, a bucket attached to a dragline moves dirt from atop the coal seam in what is called the Dixon Pit at Navajo Mine east of Farmington, N.M. The Navajo Nation is in negotiations to buy the Navajo Mine from BHP Billiton in 2016 when BHP’s lease expires. (AP Photo/The Durango Herald, Joseph Stephenson)

Here in West Virginia, the Daily Mail’s editorial writers apparently didn’t get the memo with the industry talking points about trying to be “reluctant partners” with the president … they responded to the Wall Street Journal’s report of impending greenhouse gas regulations with an editorial that asks, What will W.Va.’s Democrats do about their imperial president? It said, in part:

West Virginians won’t want to miss President Obama’s State of the Union address on Tuesday. Sources think he is likely to double down on his war on coal-fired power plants … What West Virginia Democrats do – or do not do – about their imperial president will likely further affect how their constituents view the party itself.

So, not only does the Daily Mail consistently ignore science in its news stories and editorials about climate change, but it also misunderstands the law. Journalists who actually follow such matters understand that the U.S. Supreme Court gave the EPA little choice but to take action on greenhouse emissions with its landmark ruling in Massachusetts v. EPA.

In other coal-related news this week, Nature news reported:

Pregnant women who have been exposed to higher levels of some types of air pollution are slightly more likely to give birth to underweight babies, a large international study has found. The results are published online today in Environmental Health Perspectives1.

Low birth weight — defined as a newborn baby weighing less than 2.5 kilogrammes — increases the risk of infant mortality and childhood diseases, and has been associated with developmental and health problems later in life, including diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

The folks at HuffPost Live had a discussion about the future of energy and the impact on coalfield communities:

And the great blog The Daily Yonder had this commentary:

At least we Appalachians don’t hide our opinions under any bushel baskets.  When I see a bumper sticker that says “Friend of Coal” or one that says “I Love Mountains,” there’s no question what the sticker-wearers mean.  

So, which is it?  

The coal industry is the only hope this region has of producing a significant volume of goods that can be exported out of the region to provide earned income to a significant number of residents.


The coal industry stands in the way of the region’s ability to diversify its economy, and we will not develop until it ceases to be a controlling force in politics and the economy.

 … Of course, the trouble is that both sorts of bumper stickers contain sufficient truth to fuel a feud that has already raged for a century.  Extractive industries, especially those that dominate a region’s economy, do tend to control the politics and raise wages and other costs beyond what other businesses and industries can afford. Politics and community life can get polarized very quickly as some see big benefits from extraction but others see only the costs. 

Economists have given this tendency a name, “the resource curse,” and it has been experienced in places as diverse as Holland and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The most important thing to understand about the pro/anti coal debate is that it is both unhelpful and unnecessary. The wider world might find utility in these conflicts (environmental and energy worries are serious and widespread), but for the people who live here, it seems obvious that we should stop arguing and find some common ground.

On that common ground what we really need are actions, powerfully targeted and sustained over time, to build and diversify our economy. Will it be difficult and require decades? Of course it will. Does that mean we should not do it? Of course not. The question, as usual, is what to do.

Yet much of Central Appalachia is not suitable for industrial development and offers limited tourism potential, and after years and years of development efforts, the coal industry remains our only significant economic engine.  Its disappearance or decline would bring severe increases in economic hardship and dependence on transfer payments.

… A strong community of local entrepreneurs is what we need most, for our civic life as well as our economy.  Of course, it would be better to work on political reform as well as building local entrepreneurship.  They are in no way mutually exclusive.  

I vote for direct action in support of local entrepreneurs, strategies that help them step forward and plan new or expanded businesses, that help with management and technical needs, that provide risk capital and problem solving assistance. Entrepreneurship is central to our future, and in most communities we are doing absolutely nothing to help build it. Isn’t that a rather glaring oversight?

The thing is, we know how to do that work; there is encouraging experience in our own backyard and throughout the world.  There are things called incubators, risk capital funds, crowd funding, start-up training, industry clusters, angel networks, and debt pools.  Yes, these approaches are tricky and often involve a step backward after one or two taken forward, but such strategies have been proven worthwhile in a number of diverse settings. 

Several years ago I wrote a paper on the subject of entrepreneurship in Central Appalachia and made a set of specific recommendations. I know there are many other ideas out there. Dee and Jason and Kelli have made a great start.  Let us right now begin a larger debate, one that speaks firmly and sharply of the truth of the situation and focuses tightly on what exactly we should do.