Coal and climate change politics: How elected leaders make West Virginia’s disconnect worse

May 7, 2014 by Ken Ward Jr.


The climate change disconnect in West Virginia was certainly on display yesterday, as the nation’s scientists and policymakers again made clear the urgent need to act to reduce greenhouse gas pollution, while our state’s elected officials talked more of the same about rejecting science to protect the coal industry.

This disconnect is really nothing new.  One of the reasons I started this blog in the first place was to try to bring together the completely different discussions that were going on about the coal industry. In West Virginia, some residents and almost all elected officials were focused only on trying to preserve coal jobs at all costs. Everywhere else, people were talking about the downside of the coal industry and practically begging for some action, especially on climate change.

And in some ways, West Virginia isn’t as unique as we might think. Check out this report from The Upshot, a new feature of The New York Times:

Perhaps more than people in any other rich nation, Americans are skeptical that climate change is a dire issue. In Pew Research Center surveys conducted last spring, 40 percent of Americans said that global climate change was a major threat to their country. More than 50 percent of Canadians, Australians, French and Germans gave that answer. More than 60 percent of Italians and Spaniards did. And more than 70 percent of Japanese did.

But what’s happening in West Virginia is still a little different. And despite the best efforts of a growing number of individuals and groups (see here, here and here), things seem to be getting worse, especially as we move into the silly season of the off-year elections, and Rep. Nick J. Rahall, D-W.Va., tries to combat the big spending by the Koch brothers in support of his opponent for re-election to Congress from our southern coalfields.

We in the media don’t make all of this any easier on public officials. Take coverage of yesterday’s events. On the one hand, perhaps it’s progress to see West Virginia Metro News and the Daily Mail both actually mention the National Climate Assessment in their stories. But given the long record of  commentary by Hoppy Kercheval and Don Surber dismissing the findings of the world’s scientific community, it’s going to take a lot more than two short daily stories for the damage to Metro News listeners and Daily Mail readers to be undone. And frankly, even when other news media clearly outline the scientific findings — and note the disconnect between science and West Virginia politics — there’s little in the way of constructive policy suggestions being offered and precious little holding our elected officials accountable.

The leadership void here is huge. It’s been more than four years since Sen. Robert C. Byrd urged West Virginians and their coal industry to “embrace the future,” and almost four years since Sen. Byrd passed away. Sen. Jay Rockefeller has tried to tell at least some of the truth about coal and climate issues, but he’ll be gone from the U.S. Senate before you know it — and far too often, Sen. Rockefeller’s comments on these issues are muddied by statements that clearly ignore the inevitable decline of coal in Southern West Virginia and the fact that much of that decline has nothing to do with climate policy or EPA rules.


So fast-forward to yesterday’s events. Here are a couple of the statements reported to have been made by Rep. Rahall:

“Coal will always be a mainstay of our economy.”

“Our future is as intertwined with the coal industry as it is with breathing the air of our great state.”

If you’re a kid growing up in McDowell County or Mingo or Boone or Logan — or anywhere in Rep. Rahall’s district — your congressman is basically telling you that you have only one possible future, that another coal boom is just around the corner, if we can just stop this president and his EPA from passing these silly environmental rules. Does Rep. Rahall really believe that? Let’s hope not.  Just as Rep. Rahall surely understands what mountaintop removal is doing to his district, he’s such a smart and thoughtful public servant that it’s impossible to believe Rep. Rahall doesn’t understand the reality of climate change. And it’s even harder to believe the Rep. Rahall and his staff didn’t see the writing on the wall long ago about which direction Southern West Virginia coal production was headed, regardless of anything EPA does or doesn’t do.

05.06.14 Rahall speaks at WV Coal Forum_0

Obviously, part of what’s going on here is that Rep. Rahall is feeling the pressures of the Republicans and the Koch brothers, and of the coal industry. Since President Obama took office, Rep. Rahall’s rhetoric on these issues has continued to get more and more toward the outlandish. Back in 2009, Rep. Rahall was taking a slightly more modest approach on issues like mountaintop removal permits. But here’s what his office put out to promote his comments at yesterday’s Coal Forum event in Logan:

I staunchly oppose the EPA’s bull-headed actions against coal. I am in this battle for the long-haul, and don’t let anyone – anyone – tell you different …  We also recognize that maintaining coal-fired power is a matter of national security and the basic safety of our citizens.  And that is a message that needs to sink in to the thick noggins of those ideological naysayers who are waging their ill-conceived war against coal.  To keep the lights on at our places of business, to keep the heat on in our homes, many areas turned, again, to coal – reliable, dependable, American coal.  Clearly this Nation needs to maintain its current levels of coal-fired electric generation, and I believe we need to be investing in new, more modern coal-fired plants.  If the EPA won’t listen to the science, and if the EPA won’t listen to the facts, then it had better start listening to the voice of the people.  If this Administration wants to do away with coal, it’s going to have to come through us to do it.

Two things that are important to really see in that statement. First, there’s this nonsense about how the Obama administration is “going to have to come through us to do it.” Seriously? Exactly what is Rep. Rahall proposing here? That sort of stuff is dangerous talk, and Rep. Rahall should know better. Second, there’s that line at the beginning:

… Don’t let anyone – anyone – tell you different…

Yes. That’s what this sort of out-of-control rhetoric is really all about. Rep. Rahall is turning up his talk in response to the Koch brothers and others who are trying — despite the facts — to paint him as an anti-coal Obama backer. And I know that many of you readers are thinking that this sort of campaigning is worth it, if it keeps another precious seat in Congress for your party.

But this stuff is poisoning the public discussion in West Virginia. There’s only so much space in the political landscape, and it’s all too easy for it to get eaten up with garbage, leaving little room for real discussion, real dialogue, and finding real solutions. In the environmental community, mountaintop removal — important issue that it is –sucks all the air out of every room it enters. Increasingly, natural gas “fracking” can do the same thing. A single-minded focus on one issue that outrages activists can easily make it hard to bring together coalitions of people around a broader goal like protecting our drinking water. Elsewhere in West Virginia’s political sphere, the “war on coal” sucks out all of the air from many a room. If you bring together some business people to talk about diversifying the economy, half of them are scared to say anything, for fear their comments will be seen as “anti-coal.” If you try to start a dialogue about climate change impacts or how West Virginia could do its part, many in the audience look at their watches or head for the door. Faced with decisions about news coverage or editorial positions, the state’s media is sure to cover every drop of anti-EPA rhetoric and make climate change seem far away, carefully sidestepping real political commentary or policy recommendations.

From a pure politics standpoint, the strategy that Rep. Rahall and so many other Democrats are following makes little sense. Are single-issue “war on coal” voters really going to support them? Wouldn’t it be better to show a more nuanced view and a more visionary approach to the future? More importantly, when otherwise reasonable leaders in our community — whether they be longtime congressmen, respected businessmen or even newspaper editors —  allow the career campaign consultants and the coal industry’s most strident public relations agents to control the tone, it makes it all the more difficult for West Virginia to make any real progress.

9 Responses to “Coal and climate change politics: How elected leaders make West Virginia’s disconnect worse”

  1. Forrest Roles says:

    I agree the debate is not directed to the right issues but believe the politicians you so fervently disagree with are right but for a reason not well expressed by them. While the science is not as firm as you claim, particularly as to the effects of warming and the best way to combat it, the likelihood of man made warming having important adverse effects is sufficient that steps to prevent and ameliorate harm should be taken. If the step selected is the reduction of CO2 emissions, that goal can only be accomplished by global action. Charles Krauthammer recently was asked about this subject and summed the issue up well:
    Despite the United States reducing its carbon emissions to 1992 levels, worldwide carbon emissions are higher than ever, “because we don’t control the emissions of the other 96 percent of humanity, especially China and India,” he said.
    As America dismantles its coal plants, China and India add a combined one coal plant per week, and the net effect is simply that America’s energy-generating industry is shifting from here to India and China.
    Krauthammer said that unless there is a global pact to reduce carbon emissions, America’s reductions amount to “economic suicide in the name of do-goodism that will not do one iota of good.”
    Krauthammer may have omitted one possible good from this unilateral imposition of economic damage – the hope that the rest of the world will follow our example and impose disastrous harm on their own livelihood by similarly limiting (rather than substantially increasing as they now are) their own CO2 emissions. That is the only justification I have discovered for the policy of curtailing the burning of coal. The problem is simply that there is absolutely no reason to believe our unilateral sacrifice will so motivate others.
    The history of global efforts through the UN can only be read to predict that the developing world (primarily Asia) where the increase in coal burning is the greatest will never agree to give up the use of coal to produce inexpensive energy. Why? Because energy is critical to the development necessary to raise hundreds of millions of their population out of abject poverty. Moreover, the economic progress dependent on that energy is necessary to maintain stability. See Victor, Global Warming Gridlock, Cambridge U. Press, 2011. Despite coal’s greater contribution to greenhouse gas emissions, the developing world has to continue increasing use of it to maintain their economies and order.
    So the real issues we need to debate are how to otherwise stop or ameliorate global warming; to analyses the costs and likely effectiveness of other steps which are politically possible; and decide which are worthwhile. Those which only prevent coal use in the US are of no use. They are, in Mr. Krauthammer’s apt phrase, “economic suicide in the name of do-goodism.”

  2. Paul D. says:


    Please keep in mind that the number that really counts is per-capita emissions, and China still emits less than a quarter of the CO2 emissions compared to the US on a per-capita basis – and China is taking non-fossil energy development (renewable and nuclear) quite seriously. So, China will never come close to US per-capita emissions.

    In India the per-capita figure something tiny-less than a tenth of the US.

    And Europe – which has a per-capita carbon footprint half of the US (in spite of a better living standard by almost every measure) they are certainly taking CO2 emissions reduction seriously – although Germany shot themselves in the foot by shutting down their perfectly safe nuclear generating stations on purely political grounds, requiring a return to coal.

    So the US has a lot of low-hanging fruit to pick with regard to CO2 emissions to cut. Regarding the rest of your argument, it seems to be an argument that could be applied to any human conduct. “Unilateral” honesty and integrity puts one at a distinct disadvantage against the dishonest too.

    And there is little to support the notion that CO2 emission cuts are economically damaging – the effect could be the opposite, as it is innovation, not clinging to the old ways of doing things, that expands economies.

  3. Forrest Roles says:

    Your argument makes the point. “Do-gooder” is defined by the Wikionary as “One who advocates or performs what they believe to be the morally superior course of action, even in the face of overwhelming experience or factual evidence that its effect is only irrelevant or harmful.”
    What matters for global warming is the absolute amount of greenhouse gases in our shared atmosphere. The amount per capita is wholly irrelevant. The point is that if the US eliminated all coal burning and the rest of the world continued on the present emissions path, the predicted warming change is so small to be incalculable. The policies the politicians Ken criticized oppose are, for the reason adopted, irrelevant.
    Moreover, they are harmful. As a result of EPA’s power plant emission rule, for instance, no new plants will be built to burn West Virginia’s thermal coal. The market, already poor, will wither and die and with it the good jobs and tax revenues necessary for the health of our coal fields, resulting in devastation not seen since the depression. Sure, there are other adversities our coal economy faces, but this is one intentionally imposed by government for no relevant reason and with little or no even consideration to mollifying that economic harm. Tell the unemployed of our coal fields they are not harmed.
    Finally, you treat the reduction of CO2 emissions as a morally superior course by equating it with truthfulness. Many greens do likewise. In my view, it is much more immoral to uselessly destroy an industry and the jobs and revenues it has and can contribute, with all the harm that loss causes, than to continue an irrelevantly small contribution to the concentration of greenhouse gases. Morality aside, so long as we continue to fight over these issues and ignore effective actions, like a global agreement limiting emissions, we will surely run the risk warming poses. Surely we can agree at least on that.

  4. lewis Baker says:

    Global Warming is starting to become manifest by record breaking heat, cold, floods, droughts, winds, rain, snow and ice storms, wild fires, melting glaciers, acidifying oceans… you name it. The planet’s climate is changing in fits and starts, and it will only get worse. The next decade is likely to be a greater stress test on our civilization than the last decade, and the decades to come only getting ever harder to survive.

    Even though or efforts may soon enough be too little too late, changing away from our fossil fueled based economy is a must. Clinging to the past will be mass suicide. And yet, stopping our fossil habit cold turkey could also lead to economic collapse. What we need to do is transition to a post fossil fueled economy, while keeping one eye on the changing economy and the other on the sky.

    Perhaps one the best ways to transition would be to phase in a carbon tax. To do this fairly quickly without harming the whole economy, taxes on income would also need to be phased out.

    There is already too much income inequality, so phasing out taxes on income should start at the bottom. The Social Security tax should certainly change because it has been a flat tax, with an exemption for the highest incomes, making it a super regressive tax.

    If we eliminated the SS tax exemption for top pay (now $117,000 and above), and instead exempted the first $30,000 of income from SS tax, then about half our citizens would not be burdened with it and employers could hire more of the unemployed. Also, the vast majority of consumers would be taxed less. Consumers could afford to pay for significant fossil fuel tax increases. As for senior citizens, they should get larger retirement checks because what went into SS would be overall much more than now.

    As fossil fuel costs go up, investments go into alternative sources of energy, fuel efficiency and even carbon capture technology. A carbon taxed economy can also grow quickly if the majority of consumers get an overall tax cut, and have more take home pay.

    Currently our federal tax on gasoline is only 18 cents a gallon. This tax pays to maintain or interstate highways. Our states charge about 50 cents a gallon, some more and others less. Our federal government should be collecting most of our carbon taxes, instead of leaving it up to the 50 states, but as these taxes climb the feds should share the taxes with the states 50-50. In this way, fossil fuel producing states would receive a revenue windfall instead of trying to keep its taxes less than other states.

    Of course we should not just tax our own fossil fuels, which would add to the costs of products we want to export. We could add carbon taxes to imports that were produced without being taxed as much as here, in order to make for a level playing field.

    If we begin to make this shift in taxes and fuels, and grow our economy, we may become an example to other countries. If we would open our minds, we might notice some countries are already ahead of us in this race.

  5. vnxq809 says:

    Paul D.,

    Could you please provide a link that details the per capita emissions statistics you

    Thank You.


  6. Ken Ward Jr. says:


    Perhaps the global agreement you so desire would have been reached already – with strong U.S. leadership — were it not for the decades-old well-funded effort by fossil fuel industries to deny the problem even exists.

    I’d encourage you to watch the Frontline episode, Climate of Doubt, which discusses this massive and deceptive PR effort,

    Folks like yourself would have more credibility if the industries they support (and that support them) hadn’t done so much to wrongly convince the public the issue wasn’t real.


  7. Paul D. says:

    Regarding the China/US comparison, it is just a simple calculation based on the widely-known reports of China just exceeding US CO2 emissions a few years ago, so their emissions are now slightly higher than the US. China has a population about 4.3 times the US population (widely available knowledge), hence, China emits, per capita, about a quarter of US emissions.

    I’ll have to dig up the European figures – although once again, it is commonly known that Europe’s per-capita car use is less, than the US, the cars get much better fuel economy, public transit availability is far greater than the US and largely uses electric streetcars and light rail, rail transportation is largely electrified, homes are smaller and more energy-efficient, and most importantly, a far greater proportion of their electricity is generated by nuclear, and more recently, wind and solar than the US.

    And regarding Forrest’s remark that per-capita comparisons are not relevant, I’d argue they certainly are, because of simple principle of fairness. A country whose citizens individually already emit only quarter of the US’s emission is not going to enter into an agreement to cut any emissions, nor would it be fair to ask them to, unless the big emitters agree to proportionately larger cuts. The US and Canada’s (and now Australia’s) refusal to do so is what has scuttles all efforts at an effective GHG treaty so far.

    Yes, addressing GHG emissions will mean deep cuts to WV’s coal mining industry. But it will no more and probably much less severe than the steel (and coal mining) industry collapse up here in the Pittsburgh/Mon Valley region in the 1980’s. The scale of the impacts are comparable – the population of Allegheny County and Washington County at the peak years of the steel industry was equal to the population of all of WV now. Times were hard for a while; many people had to leave their deep cultural-ethnic roots in the region and find livelihoods elsewhere. But, we survived it and West Virginia will too.

  8. Ken Ward Jr. says:


    Please do provide the figures and a citation and link for the data you’re citing and opinion about. Please see this blog’s comment rules, which specifically address providing sources for such things.

    Everyone may not know what you believe is “commonly known” and it’s good to share sources of information. It elevates the debate.


  9. Lee says:


    You’re off a little bit with your estimates:
    From the World Bank via Oak Ridge national Labs.

    For 2010:
    US Emissions were 17.6 tonnes/person whereas China was 6.2. Total emissions for the countries were 5,433,057 , and 8,286,892 kilotonnes, respectively.

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