Coal Tattoo

Coals War

As West Virginia voters go to the polls in today’s primary election, it’s worth remembering how many of our political leaders — and how many career campaign consultants — are continuing to act like the last election isn’t over yet. Candidates of all parties for any variety of offices are still trying to run as if the person on the other side of the ballot is President Obama.

This trend has sunk in even in the Kanawha County school board race, where candidates are touting their promise to get rid of “common core” – no doubt because some have turned it into the equivalent of “Obama Core,” despite its real roots in what some have called a corporate takeover of our public school system.  You would think some of the candidates might instead focus on explaining why they don’t think that libraries are parasites on our school system.

Obviously, this sort of nonsense continues whenever issues like coal and climate change come up in the campaigns, or whenever they come up at all. Take the story that the Gazette’s David Gutman had in the paper on Monday:

The first step in solving a problem is acknowledging that there is a problem.

Among scientists, there is virtually no debate: The earth’s climate is changing, and human activity, specifically burning fossil fuels, is causing those changes.

In West Virginia, where coal dominates political conversation and plays a big role in the economy, it’s more complicated, and politicians are reluctant to even say there is a problem.

A majority of West Virginia’s political leaders either declined to respond or gave evasive answers when recently asked a yes-or-no question, whether they thought human actions were causing climate change.

We’ve been through this exercise before, and the results this time are really no better.  You have to wonder if President Obama gave a speech about gravity if West Virginia political leaders would issue a stream of statements distancing themselves and vowing to fight it.

Seriously now, does Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin think when he’s asked a question about climate change that nobody notices that he answers as if the question was about littering or getting old junk cars out of ditches? He’s what he said about the release of the National Climate Assessment:

We understand the importance of environmental stewardship and are committed to preserving our state’s natural beauty for future generations to enjoy. It is important that we work together to develop reasonable standards that balance the environment and economic opportunity.

Of course, Gov. Tomblin isn’t running for anything this time. So what about the folks who are?  Well, here’s Rep. Nick J. Rahall, who moves ever closer to totally pretending science doesn’t exist:

We know the earth’s climate is ever changing. I believe there are a variety of factors and that those who focus their blame so intensely and entirely on our coal industry are being completely illogical.

We don’t know exactly who “those who focus their blame … entirely on our coal industry” are, but we know it can’t be the Obama administration. Because, gosh, the president’s climate action plan addresses a wide range of greenhouse pollution sources — everything from automobile exhaust to making buildings more efficient.  Maybe Rep. Rahall missed the administration’s initiative on vehicle mileage requirements, for example.

We’ve written before recently about Senate candidate Natalie Tennant’s silly comments about coal policies, and her response to David Gutman’s question was really no better:

Let me be very clear: I will fight President Obama and anyone else who tries to undermine our coal jobs. It’s not my job to argue the science. It’s my job to make sure policy solutions work for West Virginia. I refuse to accept that we have to choose between protecting our air and protecting our jobs when I know West Virginia can lead the way in producing technology that does both.

Natalie Tennant

Let me be clear: There’s a lot more to being a U.S. Senator that pledging allegiance to coal jobs. And in fact, a Senator is faced with arguments about science, and voters deserve to know whether Natalie Tennant has the ability to cut through the industry’s PR machine on issues like climate change science. Perhaps we need a “Common Core” test for candidates that makes them show us how much they pay attention to the basic science that underlies the challenges our coal communities face here in West Virginia.

It’s true that some Republicans — Reps. Shelley Moore Capito and David McKinley and Attorney General Patrick Morrisey — didn’t bother to answer David Gutman’s question. But we pretty much know where the three of them stand on this issue (see here, here and here). And should voters in West Virginia really set the bar for candidates as low as simply having a publicist who can crank out a couple of sentences that say something nice about trees and recycling, while trying to not-so-subtly get in an anti-Obama jab? Do the national political fundraisers and consultants who are advising Secretary of State Tennant on how to run against Shelley Moore Capito really telling her that trying to out-coal Rep. Capito is going to work?


It’s also true that there are reasons to worry about the economies of our state’s coalfield communities.  Still, in his New York Times column, economist Paul Krugman wrote this week about “Crazy Climate Economics,” and he explained:

… Just wait until the Environmental Protection Agency announces rules intended to slow the pace of climate change.

Until now, the right’s climate craziness has mainly been focused on attacking the science. And it has been quite a spectacle: At this point almost all card-carrying conservatives endorse the view that climate change is a gigantic hoax, that thousands of research papers showing a warming planet — 97 percent of the literature — are the product of a vast international conspiracy. But as the Obama administration moves toward actually doing something based on that science, crazy climate economics will come into its own.

… What do I mean by crazy climate economics?

First, we’ll see any effort to limit pollution denounced as a tyrannical act. Pollution wasn’t always a deeply partisan issue: Economists in the George W. Bush administration wrote paeans to “market based” pollution controls, and in 2008 John McCain made proposals for cap-and-trade limits on greenhouse gases part of his presidential campaign. But when House Democrats actually passed a cap-and-trade bill in 2009, it was attacked as, you guessed it, Marxist. And these days Republicans come out in force to oppose even the most obviously needed regulations, like the plan to reduce the pollution that’s killing Chesapeake Bay.

Second, we’ll see claims that any effort to limit emissions will have what Senator Marco Rubio is already calling “a devastating impact on our economy.”

Why is this crazy? Normally, conservatives extol the magic of markets and the adaptability of the private sector, which is supposedly able to transcend with ease any constraints posed by, say, limited supplies of natural resources. But as soon as anyone proposes adding a few limits to reflect environmental issues — such as a cap on carbon emissions — those all-capable corporations supposedly lose any ability to cope with change.

Now, the rules the E.P.A. is likely to impose won’t give the private sector as much flexibility as it would have had in dealing with an economywide carbon cap or emissions tax. But Republicans have only themselves to blame: Their scorched-earth opposition to any kind of climate policy has left executive action by the White House as the only route forward.

Furthermore, it turns out that focusing climate policy on coal-fired power plants isn’t bad as a first step. Such plants aren’t the only source of greenhouse gas emissions, but they’re a large part of the problem — and the best estimates we have of the path forward suggest that reducing power-plant emissions will be a large part of any solution.

What about the argument that unilateral U.S. action won’t work, because China is the real problem? It’s true that we’re no longer No. 1 in greenhouse gases — but we’re still a strong No. 2. Furthermore, U.S. action on climate is a necessary first step toward a broader international agreement, which will surely include sanctions on countries that don’t participate.

Would-be office holders in West Virginia should read that column. And then, they should take a look at this commentary by the Gazette’s executive editor, Rob Byers about what happened — and what is yet to happen — in the wake of the January Elk River chemical spill:

Democrats and Republicans alike wanted accountability for what happened, and a pretty decent storage tank inspection bill actually made it through a Legislature that’s mostly concerned about abortion and guns.

That leaves us with the million-dollar question: Will it end there? Will we forget what it was like to live without clean water? Will we go back to belittling people who try to keep our land, air and water clean? Will we keep throwing it all away for the promise of a job — any job — no matter what it costs our health?

Imagine if they embraced reality and had a big forum about life after coal. Imagine if they took the dollar signs from in front of their eyes and really looked at the facts about coal’s role in climate change. Imagine if they accepted the fact that sooner rather than later, the people’s desire for a tamer Mother Nature will push the market toward cleaner energy.

Then, we wouldn’t have to buy the image of a clean, responsible West Virginia — one where the people don’t howl in fury when a company is turned down for a permit to bury a mountain stream thousands of years in the making.

Then, we wouldn’t have to control “the message.” It would actually be the truth. It would be life in the Mountain State, where we stay ahead of the game, where we demand responsibility from those we trust with our land, water and people, and where we define Almost Heaven not by one more strip mine or strip mall, but by a way of life that exudes confidence, not vulnerability.

But, in order to escape vulnerability — from market shifts, the boom/bust cycle, the chemical spills and men dying underground — it takes the guts to change, to step into the unknown.

Or we can just keep whining about the EPA.