Coal Tattoo

A coal truck drives out of downtown Welch, W.Va., Wednesday, Feb. 9, 2011.  (AP Photo/Jon C. Hancock)

It’s pretty depressing to watch West Virginia’s Democratic Party — such as it is — run for the hills at the prospects of having to actually put up a candidate against Republican Rep. Shelley Moore Capito in the 2014 race for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by longtime U.S. Sen. Jay Rockefeller. Hoppy Kercheval painted an accurate picture of the situation:

Surely there should be established Democrats who have been paying their dues, anxiously awaiting a chance. But there aren’t.

But the really interesting take on this came from an Environment & Energy piece (subscription required) by Manuel Quinones. It was headlined “W.Va. Dems hopeful of finding pro-coal candidate to follow Rockefeller” and reported:

West Virginia Democratic Party Chairman Larry Puccio brushed off claims that the party was in dire straits in its efforts to find a candidate.

“The truth of the matter is, we have a couple of individuals who we believe will have a positive announcement in the near future,” Puccio said in an interview …

… Puccio, while not revealing names of candidates who have expressed their interest to run, said support for the state’s coal industry was an important test of electability.

“I think that’s extremely important in this state,” said Puccio. “And I will tell you, of the candidates who have spoken to me, they are all extremely supportive of coal in West Virginia.”

Both Hoppy’s commentary and the E&E story touted the potential candidacy — one that is apparently not in the cards anymore — of Charleston lawyer Nick Preservati. Hoppy wrote:

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has personally recruited the Charleston lawyer, believing that he can run as a business-friendly, pro-life Democrat who has a strong connection to the coal industry. His father, Dick, is a successful coal operator who made millions when he sold his holdings to Luxembourg-based ArcelorMittal.

 And E&E reported:

“I think with or without Preservati, this was looking like a really difficult hold for Democrats,” said Nathan Gonzalez, campaign analyst with the nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report, which has the West Virginia Senate race leaning in favor of the Republicans.

Gonzalez said Democrats “were excited about Preservati and his family’s connection to the coal industry, but the political reality is that it’s going to take a special Democratic candidate to win in West Virginia in the second midterm of President Obama in the White House.”

A hotel worker carries chairs at the Marriott Hotel in Charleston, W.Va., Tuesday evening, Oct. 4, 2011, where acting West Virginia Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin set up his campaign headquarters. (AP Photo/Brad Davis)

It’s true that Nick Preservati has close ties to the coal industry. Among other recent legal efforts, he sought to push through a mountaintop removal permit that environmental groups were challenging, represented the natural gas industry in opposing a West Virginia rule aimed at protecting strip-mine workers from the dangers of buried natural gas lines at mine sites, [CORRECTION, JUNE 28, 2013:  Nick Preservati did not represent the natural gas industry in this case — he actually represented the state Board of Coal Mine Health and Safety. My apologies for this error) and was defense lawyer for one of the Massey Energy foremen who pleaded guilty following the deadly fire at the Aracoma Mine (to charges not directly related to the fire itself).

And what’s interesting is that the folks who run the Democratic Party in West Virginia are intent on playing right into the hands of the coal industry and Republican Party’s career campaign consultants, who seek to make elections about nothing but opposition to anything about President Obama and a loyalty oath that puts coal’s interests above everything else — without any real discussion of the negative impacts of this industry’s activities.

The result is political discourse that amounts to little more than two major parties bickering over which of them has stood more strongly behind the coal industry.

There are occasional bright spots, but even those are fleeting. Senate President Jeff Kessler, D-Marshall, for example, has backed the idea of a “Future Fund” that would use coal and natural gas taxes to set up a long-term endowment for economic development, educational, and infrastructure improvements. But the idea has really gone nowhere, especially with no support from Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin.   Sen. Ron Stollings, D-Boone, has successfully pushed for more coal severance tax money to go to coalfield counties, but then he went along with the nonsensical argument that there’s no scientific evidence at all that mountaintop removal is harming the environment.

A clear idea of how West Virginia Democrats prioritize these things comes in the “Why I am running” statement on the campaign website of Nick Casey, a longtime Democratic party boss who is seeking to fill the 2nd Congressional seat Rep. Capito is giving up to run for Senate. Here’s what Casey has to say about coal and energy:

West Virginia has the energy America needs to make us a more independent and prosperous nation. We have the coal, gas, wind, hydro, solar, and geothermal that our country needs. Washington however does not have an energy plan. We need a plan to use our energy resources as cleanly and efficiently as possible. As a nation, switching trucks and cars from foreign oil to West Virginia natural gas is an obvious opportunity. Vehicles run cleaner, cheaper and we keep money here at home while creating good paying jobs.

The notion of “energy independence,” while increasingly popular with Democratic politicians, is really “a dry hole” that amounts to little more than a way to avoid talking about the bigger problem: Climate change. It says a lot about politics in West Virginia that a Democrat can announce their candidacy for Congress without saying right of the bat what they think the state should do to combat the climate crisis.

Is this really the kind of politics — the kind of campaigns, or the kind of governing — that West Virginia really needs right now? Wouldn’t residents of the state’s coalfields be better served by a broader discussion of all of coal’s positives and negatives, especially about what to do about the damaging impacts of mountaintop removal on the environment and public health, how to navigate coalfield economies in a world where actions to reduce greenhouse emissions are desperately needed, and finding paths forward as the coal industry in Central Appalachia declines in size and scope.

Rather than being so focused on proclaiming that they are “extremely supportive of coal in West Virginia,” why doesn’t the Democratic Party talk about, as the Hazard Herald over in Kentucky said in an editorial the other day, We need coal, and we also need other things:

Is coal in Eastern Kentucky dead? Certainly not, though the numbers tell a story of an industry in decline and a region where nothing is in place to pick up the slack … The simple fact at this point is that coal mining in our region isn’t what it used to be. We are encouraged as some ideas seem to have merit, but with jobs rapidly disappearing, it would be best for officials not to wait too long before taking some action to potentially attract more industry … We can agree with any assessment that notes our leaders in Frankfort simply do not seem to be too worried about what happens here in the hills once the coal runs dry.

The same might be said for Charleston, W.Va, and Washington, D.C.