Coal Tattoo

Rockefeller on coal industry: ‘They have no ideas’

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Yesterday, I spent part of the afternoon down in Bluefield, listening as Sen. Jay Rockefeller talked with black lung victims, miners’ health advocates and public health professionals about the black lung epidemic across our nation’s coalfields. It’s clear that Sen. Rockefeller is going to spend much of his remaining time in the Senate pushing on this issue and several other key matters relating to coal miner health, safety and financial security. Here’s part of our Gazette story on yesterday’s event:

Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., on Thursday gathered black lung victims and miners’ health advocates to continue a push for the Obama administration to finalize a rule aimed at ending the deadly diseases.

Rockefeller, D-W.Va., said he would rather see the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration finalize the rule on its own, without legislation that would face strong opposition from the mining industry.

“There is such a power of the coal industry almost totally over one party in Congress and some in my own party that makes change through legislation very difficult,” Rockefeller told reporters prior to a black lung “roundtable” discussion in Bluefield.

Rockefeller said that on Wednesday night he called the White House Office of Management and Budget to urge officials there to expedite their review of a draft final rule MSHA filed with OMB two weeks ago.

This morning’s Daily Mail also had a nice front-page spread, with a story by reporter Zack Harold, leading with this important thought from Sen. Rockefeller: If coal companies cannot afford to protect miners from black lung disease, Sen. Jay Rockefeller says they should go out of business.

Both during a short session with reporters prior to the event and during the roundtable discussion, Sen. Rockefeller harkened back to his previous criticisms (see here and here) of how the coal industry and some of its political friends have this single-minded focus on attacking the Obama administration. As we explained in today’s story:

Several times, Rockefeller also addressed questions about the campaign by coal industry publicists and some regional political leaders to paint the Obama administration’s U.S. Environmental Protection Agency policies as a “war on coal.”

“The president hasn’t waged a ‘war on coal’,” Rockefeller said. “Coal companies have made war on their own future.”

Rockefeller complained the industry has done little to help foster compromise on dealing with climate change or to push efforts to find cost-effective ways to capture greenhouse emissions from coal-fired power plants.

“All they can do is attack EPA and attack the president,” Rockefeller said. “That’s their whole deal. They suggest nothing. They have no ideas.”

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Those quotes were from the senator’s media availability session. He elaborated a bit during the roundtable, saying that “we know perfectly well that there is no way we can keep the lights on until we use ‘clean coal’.” The senator mentioned carbon capture and storage project at Dow Chemical and American Electric Power, saying that both “took 90 percent of the CO2 out” of their emissions streams:

They did it. I saw it. I went to it, and then it stopped and why did it stop?  Well, people said private companies couldn’t pay for it, and the federal government doesn’t have any money.

Sen. Rockefeller said that CCS could cut down on coal’s greenhouse emissions “enormously” and also improve the industry’s public image. He continued:

Why is it that they [the coal industry] just complain about EPA? They complain about it non-stop.

The senator recalled giving a speech to the West Virginia Coal Association when he raised similar points, and recounted what happened after the speech:

Then I was asked to go into a back room with the gold old boys of coal operators … they went back and they yelled at me for two hours about EPA regulations. That’s how you get elected — you beat up on Obama and you do nothing about the future.

Now, you’ve got to hand it to Sen. Rockefeller for being willing to say these things, to call out the coal industry at a time when other West Virginia political leaders spend all of their time pandering, and none of their time actually trying to fix coal’s problems or prepare coalfield communities for a future where coal is less of an economic engine.

Still, along the way there somehow, Sen. Rockefeller said a few things that don’t really help West Virginians understand that situation we find ourselves in.

First, about those two CCS projects the senator mentioned. As we’ve written before (see here and here), both the Dow and the AEP projects, while worthwhile, were not large-scale commercial implementation of this technology. They dealt with only small streams of the overall global warming pollution from both of the sites. Sen. Rockefeller’s 90 percent figure may be accurate — but it leaves out that the CCS projects at issue captured and stored that percentage of a small “slip-stream” of each facility’s overall emissions. While at least one recent study was more hopeful, many experts continue to worry about the ability to translate this technology to the scale needed to make coal as climate-friendly as Sen. Rockefeller makes it sound.

Second, when Sen. Rockefeller talks about why a company like AEP would back off its larger-scale demonstration of CCS, he leaves out a key part of the picture: Carbon capture and storage simply isn’t going to go anywhere until the federal government puts a price on carbon emissions, through some sort of regulatory plan that demands utilities reduce their global warming pollution. Let’s remember what AEP said when it dropped the project at its Mountaineer Plant in Mason County, W.Va.:

The commercialization of this technology is vital if owners of coal-fueled generation are to comply with potential future climate regulations without prematurely retiring efficient, cost-effective generating capacity. But as a regulated utility, it is impossible to gain regulatory approval to recover our share of the costs for validating and deploying the technology without federal requirements to reduce greenhouse gas emissions already in place. The uncertainty also makes it difficult to attract partners to help fund the industry’s share.

Finally, Sen. Rockefeller’s statement about there being “no way to keep the lights on” without “clean coal” reminded me a bit of a blog post from three years ago, when Sen. Rockefeller said in the Senate floor:

… Our nation is dependent on coal for more than 50 percent of its electricity today and nothing is going to change that fact. All of the renewables in the world are not going to change that fact.

Of course, as I wrote at the time, Sen. Rockefeller’s numbers were already wrong. They were outdated and reflected an inflated view of coal’s present, and certainly its future. And in his zeal to promote coal’s potential future, the senator continues to sell other energy options — especially clean renewable power — short.

It’s certainly true that many projections show coal remaining a very important part of our nation’s energy mix for some time to come. But it’s also true that there is a growing body of studies that shows that renewable energy is ramping up — and can ramp up much faster to provide a much larger share of our energy than Sen. Rockefeller gives them credit for (see here, here and here, for example).

West Virginians might find this facts uncomfortable or inconvenient, especially if their lives and jobs are tied to a declining industry. Sen. Rockefeller has done us a great service by beginning to tell us what we don’t really want to hear, and he could continue that work by reworking his soundbites about coal, CCS and clean energy.