Coal Tattoo

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The Gazette’s Dr. Paul Nyden has the story this morning about what West Virginia Democrats were billing yesterday as a major announcement regarding the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency:

State Democratic Party leaders, along with union and business leaders, announced Tuesday they are sending a 17-person delegation to Washington, D.C., August 1 in an effort to prevent new restrictions on coal-fired electric power plants.

Larry Puccio, chairman of the West Virginia Democratic Party, said this is the first time such a wide coalition is expressing concerns about tougher carbon emission regulations proposed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency under the Obama administration. West Virginia political leaders have expressed such concerns for years.

puccioPuccio is making out like this is really a big deal, as Dr. Nyden explained:

Next week’s visit to Washington is supported by the West Virginia AFL-CIO, West Virginia Chamber of Commerce, United Mine Workers of America and West Virginia Coal Association.

“This has never happened before,” Puccio said after the press conference. “This is not about politics. It is about people in West Virginia. We want to support our people.”

But it says a lot about the state of affairs in West Virginia that Democratic leaders felt the need to have a press conference just to announce that they’re going to have a meeting. Seriously.  How many meetings that are announced via press conference are serious, get-something-done meetings, rather than simply an effort to score public relations or political points?

It’s also fascinating that this move comes so soon after state Supreme Court Justice Robin Davis slammed the lack of vision and leadership among top state Democratic Party officials.  Of course, Justice Davis is herself a Democrat and statewide elected official. She’s a party leader, so why hasn’t she stepped in to generate some sort of real plan for the state’s future? Regardless, though, Larry Puccio’s explanation for the party’s lack of a candidate to face Rep. Shelley Moore Capito in the race for the U.S. Senate seat that Sen. Jay Rockefeller is vacating — that decisions about such candidates are made by the national party in Washington — seems a little thin, given that Puccio now thinks state Democrats, rather than an expert federal agency, should be making the call on major environmental policies.

But before anybody gets any silly ideas here, let’s be sure to reflect on what the West Virginia Republican Party said in response to the Democratic announcement:

Today, we saw a lot of disingenuous hypocrisy from liberals in West Virginia. Press conferences are a way for Democrats to distract from key issues and their steadfast support of anti-coal policies. But, facts are facts. The party of Obama and his endorsers who stood at the Governor’s office today have done everything possible to destroy the coal industry, raise energy prices, allow the government to take over health care and weaken our nation.

West Virginia Democrats “have done everything possible to destroy the coal industry“? Come now. Let’s be serious.

Because what West Virginia needs perhaps more than anything right now is a serious discussion about coal, energy and economic policy, public health, climate change, and the future of our state. Sure, that’s a lot to take on, but the kind of stuff that the Democrats were throwing around yesterday isn’t going to get us one step toward having that discussion.

Consider some of the statements in the press release issued yesterday by the state’s Democratic party.

First, here’s part of what Larry Puccio had to say:

This is not about politics, this is about people. This is about the coal miner that has risked their life to support their family, this is about the construction worker from the trades that builds safe structure, and this is about the small business owner who serves those coal communities.

OK, if the Democrats were so concerned about the coal miners who risk, their lives every day, wouldn’t they have passed a stronger mine safety bill after the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster. And once they passed even a very weak piece of legislation, wouldn’t they have at least made sure that it was actually implemented?

MileyThen, there was this from newly-elected House Speaker Tim Miley, D-Harrison:

I pledge on behalf of the delegates in the House that we will continue to fight hard for the coal industry, not just to remain viable, but to be the thriving industry we so desperately rely on. Hopefully this visit that we make will have an impact on the people in Washington who are regulating the coal industry here in West Virginia. They need to understand the very real and damaging effect those regulations are having on the people we represent.

These comments show a lack of understanding of what’s going on, and where energy experts believe the coal markets are heading.  U.S. Department of Energy forecasts tell us that the people Speaker Miley represents in North-Central West Virginia can expect coal production there to increase in coming years. But in Central Appalachian — meaning Southern West Virginia — coal production is projected to continue a steep drop, driven by a variety of factors, including the simple fact that much of the good and easy-to-reach coal has already been mined.


When political leaders insist that, were it not for EPA, West Virginians could expect a “thriving” coal industry, they’re just not living in reality — and they’re creating false hope that another big boom is just around the corner. This sort of rhetoric holds our state back, putting energy and effort into fighting EPA that could be better spent planning for the future.

Jeff KesslerIt was especially disappointing to hear Senate President Jeff Kessler, who has led efforts to get a “future fund” onto the legislative agenda, reduced to repeating silly industry soundbites:

We need to have an energy policy that includes all of the above, and that includes coal. Coal has been an important component of our state, of our communities, of our jobs, and of our tax base. We need to make sure the message is heard loud and clear: that coal does
keep on the lights in this state, in this country, in this region and in our communities.

The most remarkable statements, as reported by Dr. Nyden, came from West Virginia Chamber of Commerce President Steve Roberts:

I am hopeful that the Obama administration might listen to those of you who are Democrats. …  If we can’t solve it in Washington, we have the opportunity to solve it at the ballot box.

Yeah, well, the industry and its political allies — including Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney tried that last year. Didn’t work. Coal and its supporters continue to not seem to understand who won the 2012 election.

Maybe Delegate (and UMWA leader) Mike Caputo gets the Democrats a little credit by saying this:

It’s time for the rhetoric to stop, it’s time to have serious discussions with this administration.

The problem, of course, is that the industry’s campaign about a made-up “war on coal” — or “war on industry” or “war on modernity” or whatever their PR people are calling it now — undermines any suggestion that West Virginia industry and government leaders actually want to have serious discussions. And so do the sorts of comments that Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin made in a separate press release offering his support for the Democrats who are going to meet with EPA:

This new directive to the EPA is another attempt by  the Obama administration  to end the use of coal as we know it.  Not only will this proposed regulation devastate West Virginia and the region by eliminating jobs for our citizens, it would unnecessarily increase the cost of power across the nation.  West Virginians will not stand for it.  This latest announcement is yet another example of the inappropriate use of regulatory authority to set policy for our country.  These decisions reside within Congress, not a bureaucracy.

First, there is no proposed regulation regarding carbon dioxide emissions from coal-fired power plants. We won’t have any idea what EPA’s proposal looks like until at least June 2014 — so, as American Electric Power has observed — it’s difficult to know exactly what the proposal’s impacts might be on West Virginia power plants or the state’s coal industry.

Second, perhaps the governor’s lawyers could familiarize him with the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Massachusetts v. EPA, which found that EPA has a duty to regulate carbon dioxide emissions.

Earl Ray TomblinFinally, it’s particularly telling when Gov. Tomblin says this:

This new directive to the EPA is another attempt by  the Obama administration  to end the use of coal as we know it.

Anyone who is paying attention to the science of climate change, and understands coal’s impact on the climate crisis, can clearly see that what is needed to deal with the problem is to end the use of coal as we know it.  The Union of Concerned Scientists explained this clearly in a helpful 2008 report called Coal Power in a Warming World:

If the United States continues burning coal the way it does today, it will be impossible to achieve the reductions in heat-trapping emissions needed to prevent dangerous levels of global warming. Coal-fired power plants represent the nation’s largest source of carbon dioxide (CO2, the main heat-trapping gas causing climate change), and coal plant emissions must be cut substantially if we are to have a reasonable chance of avoiding the worst consequences of climate change.

The only way to keep burning coal and deal with the climate crisis is to perfect and deploy carbon capture and storage, or CCS, technology. Yet if you read through the Tomblin administration’s latest energy plan, for 2013-2017, you won’t find any real efforts by the state government to work on developing or deploying CCS for coal-fired power plants.

West Virginia political leaders pretend that global warming isn’t happening, and that there’s no need to do anything about it. If they truly want the discussion that they say they want, then wouldn’t they be better off admitting the problem up front, and coming up with a plan for how West Virginia will help do something about it?