Coal Tattoo

Friday roundup June 28, 2013

President Barack Obama wipes sweat from his face during a speech on climate change at Georgetown University on Tuesday, June 25, 2013, in Washington. Obama is proposing sweeping steps to limit heat-trapping pollution from coal-fired power plants and to boost renewable energy production on federal property. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

The big news this week was obviously President Obama’s climate change speech and the administration’s proposal for actions to reduce carbon pollution.  The announcement draw immediate criticism from the coal industry here in West Virginia and elsewhere. For example, the Daily Beast posted a piece headlined “Pity the Coal Miners: A Greener Environment’s Biggest Losers”:

The president ran for reelection on an “all of the above” energy strategy. “We need an energy strategy … for the 21st century that develops every source of American-made energy,” the president declared on March 15, 2012. That’s when his political team was worried about every vote in states like Virginia, Ohio, and Pennsylvania, as well as trying to raise as much money as possible from business interests dependent on reliable, cheap energy. Those states and those businesses have a vested interest in the energy source right in the bull’s eye of the Obama climate-change plan: coal.

What I found most interesting about this piece, though, was how it threw around the term “job killer” for Obama’s regulatory proposals, yet some editor thought it was a good idea to illustrate the piece with a photograph from outside the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster, where 29 West Virginia coal miners were actually, well — killed. Like a friend of mine says, one of these days we’re going to run out of words.

Other media coverage was nothing that the Republicans were saying that President Obama’s latest proposal isn’t just a “war on coal”:

Leading Republicans were using phrases like “anti-American” and “war on American energy” to describe President Obama’s new plan to combat climate change, escalating the rhetoric even before the President’s Georgetown University speech outlining his program.

“President Obama’s anti-American energy plan will increase the price of energy and hurt job creation,” Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., tweeted. Bachmann is a longtime climate change denier who has defended the presence of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

But pieces in both Slate and Grist were making the argument in favor of a “war on coal”. David Roberts at Grist, for example, wrote:

I’ve mostly been offering modest praise for Obama’s climate plan, but there are some notable oversights. While it addresses U.S. coal-fired plants through EPA regulations, it neglects another, equally large aspect of the coal problem. Specifically, I’m talking about coal mining, leasing, transport, and export in the U.S. Northwest. There’s a bad situation there and it’s getting worse.

The Powder River Basin stretches across southeast Montana and northeast Wyoming. It is rich with low-grade (dirty) coal. Most of that coal is on public land, owned by you and me. What you and I are doing at the moment, via the Bureau of Land Management in the Department of the Interior, is leasing the mineral rights on those public lands to coal companies for pennies on the dollar

How does turning over one of the world’s biggest dirty coal fields to private companies for cheap notexacerbate the problem of carbon pollution?

Of course it does. Digging up and burning that Powder River Basin coal will put enough carbon in the atmosphere to undo all of Obama’s other climate work.

If Obama really believes, as he proclaimed on Tuesday, that increasing climate pollution is not in the nation’s interests, then he needs to get serious about stopping coal leasing and coal exports in the Northwest.

Meanwhile, the Associated Press had an interview with Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz arguing that President Obama isn’t against coal, while Michael Grunwald at Time explained that some of the president’s climate deeds are more significant than his climate words:

Obama has probably done more than anyone in the history of the planet to reduce carbon emissions. He doubled fuel efficiency standards for cars and trucks, which by 2025 should erase an entire year worth of U.S. emissions. He enacted a series of new efficiency standards for dishwashers, refrigerators and other appliances, which by 2030 should save enough electricity to power every American single-family home for two years. He approved 45 renewable electricity projects on federal land, producing 10 gigawatts of clean power; his predecessors approved a grand total of zero. And his 2009 stimulus bill launched a clean energy revolution, with $90 billion worth of unprecedented investments in wind, solar and geothermal power; advanced biofuels; electric vehicles; a smarter grid; cleaner coal; efficiency in every imaginable form; high-concept research into low-emissions technologies; green manufacturing; and much more.

But certainly the most interesting piece this week on Obama’s announcement  was The Coal Lobby’s Fight for Survival, by Coral Davenport at The National Journal. You want to give the whole thing a read, but here’s part of it:

Once upon a time, such an announcement—a shot across the bow of King Coal—would have been political suicide. No more …  The effort to get Obama out of the White House was a total failure. He won reelection comfortably, carrying all the key swing states that produce the most coal: Pennsylvania, Ohio, Colorado, and Virginia, leaving the industry with but a giant swath of scorched earth.

A pair of coal trucks drive through the deep waters outside of Punxsutawney, Pa., during flooding  on Thursday, June 27, 2013. (AP Photo/The Punxsutawney Spirit, Larry McGuire)

The story goes on:

Behind the scenes, however, the coal companies and the consultants who represent them in Washington are often at loggerheads. Privately, many people working for the coal lobby concede that time has finally come for coal to face up to climate change. They don’t want the coal industry to look like a science-denying dinosaur—a charge that’s also been leveled against many Republicans on the far right. They recognize that the game has changed, with a new energy market and administration that will regulate them against their will. They believe it’s time to stop the war, engage the enemy, and to ask it for help, both in developing environmental regulations and researching the new technology. But that thought turns the stomach of the corporate chiefs at some of the country’s oldest coal companies—the titans used to the halcyon days of coal power.

To survive, the coal lobby will likely have to show more of that flexibility.  The internal divides make it hard for the coal lobby to advocate for itself, but it’s trying. The first step will be ACCCE’s new summer campaign, which will involve far more conciliatory rhetoric and far less anti-Obama bombast.

It will also involve less money. For the past five years, ACCCE has fought for coal with huge television ad campaigns, with lavish annual budgets sometimes exceeding $40 million. But for coal to save its own life, the industry will need a lot more than new talking points. It will need to wake up to an entirely different reality, one that it accepts—not denies.

In other news and commentary this week:

— The Beckley paper had a profile feature of the great Dr. Donald Rasmussen, the legendary West Virginia black lung doctor.

— Taylor Kuykendall over at the State Journal wrote up a story about an Alpha Natural Resources coal miner getting his job back — at least temporarily — after he says he was fired for complaining about safety problems.

— Jim Bruggers at the Courier-Journal in Louisville, had a piece about Kentucky regulators issuing a report that tries to discredit research suggesting a link between coal mining and adverse health impacts.

And I wanted to go back and point out a couple of other pieces about the president’s climate action plan. First, there was a commentary by Rich Kirby of WMMT in Whitesburg, Ky., on the Daily Yonder blog that made this point:

If there’s a moral here, it’s about the power of a narrative and the need for a new one. One of the big problems with “Obama’s War On Coal” is that it casts us here in the mountains as passive victims waiting for someone to come rescue us. But we’re entitled to ask, why would a “rescue” be any better than the previous hundred years that have left us so disadvantaged? The “opposing” narrative, of impending climate doom, casts us as pawns to be sacrificed for the greater good. Save the planet, yes, by all means — but we’re entitled to ask, why should we do this on the backs of Appalachian coal communities? What does anybody owe us for all that we have already given to the larger society?

There are today the makings of a narrative that we would construct ourselves. The recent conference on “Appalachia’s Bright Future” in Harlan was full of examples; Appalshop’s “Making Connections” project is documenting many more. I suggest that this is where to put as much energy and imagination as we can muster. I think and hope that WMMT will be a part of the effort.

And Jeremy Richardson of the Union of Concerned Scientists wrote up a blog post about his group’s new poll showing West Virginians favor an increase in coal taxes to help fund an economic diversification effort:

As a scientist studying climate change, I’m excited by the President’s leadership. He articulated the reality of the problem that we face, and why it’s so important that we act today to prepare for climate change that’s already locked in and protect future generations by cutting emissions.

But as a son and brother of coal miners, I was disappointed that the President didn’t directly speak to the miners and their families who stand to lose the most from our nation’s (critically important) transition to clean sources of energy. However, a sentence near the end of the speech provides some cause for hope on that front:

We’re going to need to give special care to people and communities that are unsettled by this transition — not just here in the United States but around the world.

My work here at UCS suggests that West Virginians are concerned about coal jobs, but also very supportive of new economic development in their communities, including renewable energy like wind and solar … it’s clear to me that West Virginians are ready to have a new conversation about the future of the state. And it makes me proud to be a Mountaineer.

And finally, from Kentucky, the Hazard Herald didn’t seem to like President Obama’s speech too much … but they are also tired of local political leaders not looking to the future:

We’re flabbergasted that our federal government has moved so slowly, or not at all, to incentivize the development of clean coal technologies that could have not only helped save jobs, but perhaps even created them while also reducing the amount of carbon emitted annually into the atmosphere.

Unfortunately, we’re also disheartened that here in Eastern Kentucky we have moved so slowly to build a more diversified economy that the downfall of the coal industry might be our region’s downfall as well.

Ultimately, President Obama’s planned executive order should be no surprise coming from a president who during his 2008 campaign bluntly declared that it would not be financially feasible for a company to build a coal-fired plant during his administration.

We all saw this coming.

But something we also should have seen coming here is that in Eastern Kentucky we would someday need something other than coal. Whether you want it to or not, it seems that day is fast approaching.