Coal Tattoo


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.