Coal Tattoo

Will W.Va. give Obama’s climate plan a chance?

Earlier this week, President Obama had barely finished his landmark speech outlining his new climate change action plan when the predictable press releases starting coming in from West Virginia’s political leadership.

Rep. Nick J. Rahall, D-W.Va., blasted the president’s plan as “misguided, misinformed and untenable,” but got left in the dust by Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., who said the administration’s announcement “is another move in the president’s tyrannical game of picking winners and losers in the energy industry.”

Tyrannical? Really? Those sorts of responses and that over-heated rhetoric have become what’s expected of our political leaders, as they all race to pledge allegiance to the coal industry and to appear as tough on Obama and EPA as they possibly can.

The day after President Obama’s announcement, I did a story about one terribly interesting aspect of the political reaction here in West Virginia: How leaders focused only on attacking Obama on behalf of the coal industry, while giving the administration no credit at all for the president’s very strong support of increased natural gas drilling. One source attributed this to West Virginians not really seeing ourselves as a natural gas state, at least not yet. But it seems to me that there’s more to it than that.

The coal industry’s public relations machine, and the industry-backing career campaign consultants have everyone in such a state of frenzy about the “war on coal” that it leaves little room for a real political discussion. And while there are so many aspects of the coal industry where external costs need to be internalized — mine safety, water pollution, public health, global climate — sometimes the focus on banning mountaintop removal or regulating coal ash sucks all of the air out of the room, making constructive discussion and progressive change impossible.

Part of the problem is within the industry itself. As the National Journal’s Coral Davenport explained in a thoughtful piece the other day, there’s a fight going on within the industry itself between a faction that wants to continue denying climate change — basically to launch and even broader “war on coal” campaign — and another group of operators that understands this route hasn’t been working on a national level and knows that trying to engage the Obama administration, and find ways to get enough funding and time to make CCS work, is really the only way coal survives in a carbon-constrained world.

But as a new poll (see also here, here and here) commissioned by the Union of Concerned Scientists shows (with results similar to a previous survey done for Appalachian Mountain Advocates) there’s actually plenty of support in West Virginia for finding ways to talk more holistically about coal and our economy and our future:

A substantial majority of West Virginians favor a proposal to increase taxes on coal operators to create a long-term fund to help diversify the state’s economy, according to a new survey conducted for the Union of Concerned Scientists.

More than two-thirds of those surveyed by Lake Research Associates support the idea of using natural resources taxes for a “future fund,” of the sort promoted by the West Virginia Center for Budget and Policy, a progressive think tank.

Sixty-nine percent of those polled support a 1 percent increase in coal taxes, while 19 percent opposed such a move. Seventy percent support setting aside a portion of natural gas taxes for the program, while 12 percent were opposed, according to survey results released Thursday …

The survey results generally reflect broad support for the coal industry, but also backing of measures to reduce pollution, such as strong enforcement of the federal Clean Water Act.

West Virginia native Jeremy Richardson, a physicist from a coal-mining family, really hit it when he explained the results of the poll the Union of Concerned Scientists did as part of his work examining coal and climate change and economic transition:

My hope is that this survey that we did will help change the conversation.  There is space for political leaders to argue that we’re not trying to kill the coal industry, we’re trying to create more opportunities for our kids.

We don’t know which faction will win the coal industry’s internal battle about the future. And so far West Virginia’s political leaders seem utterly unwilling to confront uncomfortable facts. But normal, everyday West Virginians seem to understand the situation, and they say they want to embrace the future … so maybe it’s up to them to bring the industry and elected officials along.