Coal Tattoo

The West Virginia Democrats go to Washington

BQmD-LHCYAA8yds.jpg large

Photo from Twitter stream of Susan Miley.

That’s West Virginia Coal Association Vice President Chris Hamilton there in the middle, flanked by Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin and new House Speaker Tim Miley — three members of the delegation that had been billed as a trip by West Virginia Democratic Party leaders to meet with new Obama administration Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy and complain about the agency’s coal policies.

It’s probably  a sign that I’m not as cynical or experienced as I’d like to think that I was a little surprised that the delegation was so openly showing off how one of the state’s top coal lobbyists was right there with them both before, during and after this meeting with EPA and White House officials. You might have thought they would have  — just to have a little more credibility with EPA — have distanced themselves a tiny bit from coal companies, if the meeting was indeed not about helping the industry, but serving the people of our state.

Not for nothing, but UMWA official Bill Banig was there with the group as well. He was about the only one who emphasized that the tough issued facing our state’s coal industry aren’t somehow going to magically go away.

State Democratic Party Chairman Larry Puccio insisted that everyone is welcome to take part in discussion about the future of the state’s coal industry, but when asked he admitted that he hadn’t bothered to invite anyone from any of the state’s environmental organizations to tag along to meet with EPA.  Meanwhile, the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition was urging people to call EPA to say that the delegation doesn’t really represent all of the people of the great state of West Virginia.

Anyway, the dominant theme of the day will probably be that being reported right now by the AP’s Vicki Smith:

A face-to-face meeting with the new head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency creates an opportunity to “hit the reset button” when it comes to coal, several West Virginia Democrats who traveled to Washington said Thursday.

West Virginia leaders seemed to be trying to come off like they had a good meeting, maybe made a tiny bit of progress toward slowing down EPA rules aimed at limiting coal pollution, or at the very least made some personal connections with Ms. McCarthy that might help them moving forward. There was a lot of bashing of former EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson, who wasn’t around to defend herself, and some comments that I guess were meant as compliments for Ms. McCarthy. Speaker Miley, for example, told reporters in a post-meeting conference call:

She wasn’t just paying us lip service by being there. She could have sent a staffer to do that. She wasn’t just a potted plant, rolling her eyes or paying us lip service.

But then we heard the real thinking of West Virginia political leaders come out, with statements like this one, issued by Gov. Tomblin:

“Just days ago, Ms. McCarthy asked an audience at Harvard Law School, ‘Can we stop talking about environmental regulations killing jobs, please?’ Today, I took the opportunity to tell her that West Virginian’s will not stop talking about our jobs-and will not stop fighting for coal.”

Gov. Tomblin also noted in his remarks to McCarthy that hundreds of West Virginians are now out of work due to EPA’s overzealous, ideological, and financially devastating policies that have led to the closure of coal mines and coal-fired power plants in our state. McCarthy responded by promising to provide an open dialogue and consider the effects of policies on working men and women in West Virginia.

Again, Gov. Tomblin does a terrible disservice to coal miners, their families and the rest of us when he tries to boil down what’s happening in West Virginia’s coal industry to being only the fault of EPA.  What about the natural gas boom? What about competition from other coal basins? What about the fact that much of the good and easy-to-get West Virginia coal has already been mined?

There are a lot of factors at play here. If Gov. Tomblin doesn’t know that, then he’s not paying attention. If he does not it and refuses to talk about it, then he’s just misleading people.

BQmL8RKCYAAgvFe.jpg large

West Virginia Democratic Party Chairman Larry Puccio, center, leads a post-EPA meeting conference call with home-state reporters. Photo via Susan Miley’s twitter feed.

But let’s face it, Larry Puccio’s statements aside, these kinds of meetings are far more about politics than they are about people. If it was a serious meeting, aimed at making progress on a tough issue with EPA, they wouldn’t had announced it via press conference, and promoted more press coverage of their chest-thumping afterward.

The political backdrop is that West Virginia’s Republican Party has been winning some elections, and that party’s whole game plan — the only thing they’ve got — in West Virginia is to say “Obama’s War on Coal” over and over and over and over. That’s what Rep. Nick J. Rahall will be facing (again) in his re-election bid next year.

West Virginia Democrats have misplayed this all the way around. First, they’ve refused to get out in front of actually addressing issues like mountaintop removal, coal-ash pollution, public health threats, or global warming. They’ve tried to ignore these problems, hoping no one would notice. And certainly, the Democrats who have run the state for generations have done precious little to truly prepare for the day that everyone knows will one day come, when the good and easy coal is gone.


So the Democrats are left doing the sort of thing that Rep. Rahall was doing today. Here’s part of his prepared statement:

I explained today that the regulatory barriers that EPA has erected with respect to permitting go well beyond coal mining and are now reaching across into highway construction.  Specifically, at issue for me right now is the future of the critical King Coal Highway, a road decades in the making and a post-mining economic development project that is vital to the well-being of West Virginians for generations to come.

The King Coal Highway? OK, now let’s remember that nobody really knows what this “post-mining economic development project” that Rep. Rahall touts is going to be, or how many jobs it might provide or when it might be built. And the best that local officials have been able to do in responding to concerns about the strip-mine proposed as part of the deal is to pretend science doesn’t exist.

The only Democratic leader who took anything like a different route today didn’t attend the EPA meeting, and isn’t running for re-election next year. Here’s what Sen. Jay Rockefeller said:

West Virginia coal miners and their families have given so much for the country and for our state. Any action on climate change affects them greatly, which mean they absolutely must have – and deserve – a chance to be heard in charting a future for coal. I am thankful that our delegation is coming to Washington on their behalf and I’m urging the Administration to carefully and truly listen to what our delegation has to say today,” Rockefeller said.

If we’re going to have an honest conversation about climate change and the future of coal, we can’t afford to leave anyone out – from miners and their families to coal operators, utility companies and policy-makers. It’s in our interest as West Virginians to be part of the solution, and it’s in our interest as a nation to invest in clean coal. We should start with a real public-private partnership among all stakeholders, especially in these tough budget times.

The Administration sent the right message last week when our new Energy Secretary Moniz touted clean coal during a visit with the experts in West Virginia. But actions speak louder than words, on all sides, and the details of how we move forward matter a great deal. I will never stop believing that we can work together to find common ground in supporting our miners and investing in clean coal. That hard work must begin today.

Not for nothing, but while all of this EPA meeting stuff was going on, Sen. Rockefeller was busy introducing a black lung bill, aimed in part at forcing the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration to toughen the legal dust limits as part of a plan to try to eliminate the deadly disease altogether. Isn’t odd how we don’t hear most West Virginia Democrats complaining much about the Obama administration’s continued stalling on black lung or calling out the industry for opposing these life-saving rules?

For its part EPA (after initially trying to kick questions to the White House), issued this statement through press secretary Alisha Johnson:

This was a good and productive meeting. It is always helpful to hear views of the West Virginia delegation as we work together to find the best solutions to protect public health and reduce carbon pollution while promoting job growth.

The problem here is that West Virginia leaders don’t show a lot of interest, at least when it comes to the coal industry, in finding “the best solutions to protect public health and reduce carbon pollution.” They just want to promote coal production, in the hopes that doing so will promote job growth. West Virginia leaders are found of professing that our state has cleaned up the coal industry’s act. The cite the long-ago days of burning slag piles or orange streams. Wouldn’t they have more credibility with EPA if they admitted the problems the industry still causes today — and stopped trying to play denial games about global warming?

Sen. Joe Manchin is right when he says coal is going to remain an important part of the energy mix for a while to come. This is especially true in North-Central West Virginia and the state’s Northern Panhandle. But most projections show a continued decline in the state’s southern coalfield production.  Why don’t Democratic leaders — especially those from that area, like Gov. Tomblin and Rep. Rahall — do more to plan for that, to prepare?

I guess it’s an important part of being a West Virginia politician to believe that the next coal boom is just around the corner to save us any tough decisions.