Coal Tattoo

Heads in sand: W.Va. leaders keep denying reality

President Barack Obama, flanked by Vice President Joe Biden and House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio, gestures as he gives his State of the Union address during a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday Feb. 12, 2013. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak, Pool)

As the reactions started to roll in last night, there really weren’t any surprises in the way West Virginia political leaders responded to the first State of the Union address of President Obama’s second term.

First, there was Democratic Rep. Nick J. Rahall’s comment:

… On the energy front, he is absolutely wrong in his misguided efforts to circumvent the Congress with unilateral regulatory actions that will result in job loss, especially when it comes to the EPA’s unfair and inequitable treatment of coal mining in Appalachia, which the Congress and the courts are rightly resisting. I intend to keep on doing all that I can to promote coal and keep our miners on the job producing affordable energy for the Nation.

And then there was Republican Rep. Shelley Moore Capito:

President Obama has attacked West Virginia resources from Day One, and it is clear that his extreme energy agenda will only pick up steam in his second term.  He said it himself, if Congress doesn’t act on climate legislation—he will.  He expressly said that he would pick winners and losers in the energy economy, and we all know coal will be in the losing column.

Sen. Jay Rockefeller’s prepared statement responding to the speech didn’t mention coal, energy policy or climate change, but Sen. Joe Manchin’s statement included this:

I was, however, disappointed that he refused to mention coal when he discussed controlling our energy future. I’ve consistently pushed for an all-of-the-above energy policy and this President must do the same. Any discussion of our nation’s energy future must include coal.

But the one that really got me was from Republican Rep. David McKinley:

The President’s focus on climate change is just code to justify his war on coal and other fossil fuels. While I agree that climate change is taking place, the question is what causes it. Is it man-made or natural? Despite the inconclusive science, the President made it clear he will take action that would cause considerable damage to our already weak economy.

Let’s look at one part of that again:

While I agree that climate change is taking place, the question is what causes it. Is it man-made or natural? Despite the inconclusive science …

It’s possible this is a minor shift in Rep. McKinley’s position. He’s previously appeared to question whether the climate is changing, but now appears to have backed off that (see here and here). But he’s clinging to the next stage of climate denial: That even if the climate is changing, it’s not human activities like burning of coal that is to blame.

So let’s be clear. The overwhelming scientific evidence simply doesn’t support Rep. McKinley on this position either. Scientists are very confident that the global warming and climate changes we’re now witnessing are the result of human activity (see here, here and here, just for example).   And there’s simply no real doubt that burning coal is a major contributor to carbon pollution.

But Rep. McKinley is stuck on some odd conspiracy theory about coal, saying:

The President’s focus on climate change is just code to justify his war on coal and other fossil fuels.

This sort of argument can only succeed if the person making it fudges the facts and the science — or outright ignores them — to make it seem like coal isn’t contributing to climate change, that there’s no problem here that smart policymakers ought to try to confront.

And really, Rep. Rahall is in many ways taking this same sort of stance. For example, the science to date has been very clear that mountaintop removal is having pervasive and irreversible impacts on the Appalachian environment. And a growing body of scientific evidence links living near mountaintop removal operations to increased risk of serious illnesses, including cancer and birth defects.

But while Rep. Rahall promises to do everything in his power to promote coal and keep our miners on the job, he mentions nothing about the environmental devastation or the public health damage. He pretends those studies don’t exist.

If you look back at President Obama’s speech, the president spelled out some major successes on the energy front for our country:


After years of talking about it, we are finally poised to control our own energy future. We produce more oil at home than we have in 15 years. We have doubled the distance our cars will go on a gallon of gas, and the amount of renewable energy we generate from sources like wind and solar – with tens of thousands of good, American jobs to show for it. We produce more natural gas than ever before – and nearly everyone’s energy bill is lower because of it. And over the last four years, our emissions of the dangerous carbon pollution that threatens our planet have actually fallen.

But, the president said:

 … For the sake of our children and our future, we must do more to combat climate change. Yes, it’s true that no single event makes a trend. But the fact is, the 12 hottest years on record have all come in the last 15. Heat waves, droughts, wildfires, and floods – all are now more frequent and intense. We can choose to believe that Superstorm Sandy, and the most severe drought in decades, and the worst wildfires some states have ever seen were all just a freak coincidence. Or we can choose to believe in the overwhelming judgment of science – and act before it’s too late.

What should we do? President Obama said:

The good news is, we can make meaningful progress on this issue while driving strong economic growth. I urge this Congress to pursue a bipartisan, market-based solution to climate change, like the one John McCain and Joe Lieberman worked on together a few years ago. But if Congress won’t act soon to protect future generations, I will. I will direct my Cabinet to come up with executive actions we can take, now and in the future, to reduce pollution, prepare our communities for the consequences of climate change, and speed the transition to more sustainable sources of energy.

So for West Virginia political leaders who don’t want President Obama’s Environmental Protection Agency to have the last word on the issue, the answer is really pretty clear:  Work to pass comprehensive, bipartisan, market-based legislation to address the climate crisis.  And really, that isn’t as hard as it sounds. It wasn’t so long ago that there was legislation on the table – supported by, among others, American Electric Power — that dedicated what the United Mine Workers union said was a “remarkable” amount of money toward carbon capture and storage for coal plants, a bill that even the UMWA said ensured that the future of coal will be intact.

President Obama signaled with his State of the Union address that he’s going to move the country forward. With his re-election, Americans across the country indicated that’s what they want. West Virginia can stay stuck in the past, fighting old worn-out battles, or — as the late Sen. Byrd encouraged us to do, we can “embrace the future.”