Coal Tattoo


Gazette photo by Kenny Kemp

Earlier this week, I wrote about West Virginia’s Democratic Senate candidate, Natalie Tennant, and the ridiculous campaign ad she’s running in her effort to out anti-EPA Rep. Shelley Moore Capito. But don’t think for a minute that I’ve forgotten the absurd comment that Democratic House candidate Nick Casey made last week in his meeting with the state’s largest business lobby groups. Here’s how it was reported:

Both candidates attacked the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency over recent regulations on coal-fired power plants that would reduce coal’s share of the nation’s energy profile from 39 percent last year to 30 percent by 2030.

Mooney stressed his “concerns about regulations coming out of Washington” related to the Clean Water Act, the EPA and “other regulations approved by Congress.”

Mooney also said he doesn’t believe that the science on climate change is settled, despite a vast majority of scientists who believe that man-made global warming is real. Earlier this year, a National Climate Assessment from 300 independent scientists detailed how climate change is already affecting the nation’s weather, communities and commerce.

Casey said of climate change, “It’s not our problem,” because it’s an international issue.

That’s right … “It’s not our problem” is what Nick Casey has to say about climate change. Like so many West Virginia leaders, he’s hiding behind the lack of a binding international program to reduce greenhouse gas emissions around the globe as his excuse for not supporting the state of some action to curb the U.S. coal industry’s carbon dioxide contributions.  Perhaps one of his campaign staff needs to give Nick Casey a briefing on the latest Associated Press investigation, which exposed how U.S.-mined coal that’s being exported is a growing part of the climate crisis:

Coal from Appalachia rumbles into this port city, 150 railroad cars at a time, bound for the belly of the massive cargo ship Prime Lily. The ship soon sets sail for South America, its 80,000 tons of coal destined for power plants and factories, an export of American energy — and pollution.

In the U.S., this coal and the carbon dioxide it will eventually release into the atmosphere are some of the unwanted leftovers of an America going greener. With the country moving to cleaner natural gas, the Obama administration wants to reduce power plant pollution to make good on its promise to the world to cut emissions.

Yet the estimated 228,800 tons of carbon dioxide contained in the coal aboard the Prime Lily equals the annual emissions of a small American power plant. It’s leaving this nation’s shores, but not the planet.

“This is the single biggest flaw in U.S. climate policy,” said Roger Martella, the former general counsel at the Environmental Protection Agency under President George W. Bush. “Although the administration is moving forward with climate change regulations at home, we don’t consider how policy decisions in the United States impact greenhouse gas emissions in other parts of the world.”

So, if indeed we should be just as worried about all the coal that gets burned in China or South America, shouldn’t we think about whether shipping our coal there is such a good policy? Why isn’t that part of what Nick Casey talks about, instead of just saying it’s “not our problem”? Or is his “not our problem” routine just a way of brushing off the EPA proposal without having to really engage in a thoughtful policy discussion about the climate crisis?

Some people will try to tell you that Casey is better on this issue than his Republican opponent. They’ll say he’s more likely to perhaps eventually support a climate change bill in Congress. They point to things like this:

Mooney also said he doesn’t believe that the science on climate change is settled, despite a vast majority of scientists who believe that man-made global warming is real.

So the test is whether or not someone will make a huge show of denying science, and if they at least don’t flaunt their anti-science attitude, then that is a mark in their favor? Isn’t that setting a pretty low bar for candidates, and putting West Virginia on a course to forever being stalled on these issues, and not taking any steps at all to the future?

coal port

In this May 22, 2014, photo, a ship is docked at Norfolk Southern’s Lamberts Point coal terminal as a man plays golf in Norfolk, Va. As the Obama administration weans the U.S. off dirty fuels blamed for global warming, energy companies have been sending more of America’s unwanted energy leftovers to other parts of the world, where they could create even more pollution. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

It’s true that climate change is a global problem, and needs a global solution. But what’s Nick Casey’s version of that global solution? Where’s his proposal for what he would do in the House of Representatives to encourage a global solution? I checked his campaign website, and it doesn’t list climate change as an issue he wants to tackle. There is an entry for energy, which includes this line that reads mostly like some boilerplate from a career campaign consultant or a Friends of Coal soundbite:

… We are suffering under an ever-expanding web of EPA regulations, especially in our coal industry. Congress needs to set energy policy, not the EPA. I will fight for common-sense regulations that businesses can operate under and our workers can make careers out of to provide for their families. 

West Virginia political leaders and candidates are good at complaining endlessly about the EPA, and at promoting vague plans to pump more money into “clean coal” as the solution to everything. But which among them has  on their agenda a piece of legislation or a rule or anything else that actually includes mandated emissions reductions over any sort of timeline at all, let alone over swift timeline scientists say is needed to avoid the worst impacts of climate change.

On his campaign website, Nick Casey takes a page from Sen. Manchin and proclaims:

West Virginia has the coal, gas, wind, hydro, solar, and geothermal energy that our country needs.

The problem, Casey says, is:

Washington however does not have a workable energy plan.

caseyOK … so where is his plan? And exactly what levels of greenhouse gas reductions would be made over what time period under his plan? How do those reductions compare to what scientists say are needed? Take Natalie Tennant’s “Coal and Energy Jobs Agenda,” which professes to include a “plan” to help develop the technologies to capture carbon dioxide emissions from coal-fired power plants. The problem is, it includes no companion language to actually mandate emissions reductions — something experts say is needed if these sorts of technologies are ever going to be deployed by utilities. I asked Secretary of State Tennant’s campaign spokeswoman what their estimate was of the emissions reductions that might result from her plan, and I was told:

Natalie’s proposal is designed to protect and promote jobs. It is not intended to be a plan for reducing carbon emissions or addressing climate change.

Fair enough … it’s clear our political leaders simply don’t want to talk about climate change and have absolutely no plan for how West Virginia could play a role in addressing the crisis. But let’s remember that forces outside of West Virginia are trying to address it, and it’s going to affect us — whether we like it or not.  It’s like the late Sen. Robert C. Byrd tried to tell us:

To be part of any solution, one must first acknowledge a problem. To deny the mounting science of climate change is to stick our heads in the sand and say “deal me out.” West Virginia would be much smarter to stay at the table.

The 20 coal-producing states together hold some powerful political cards. We can have a part in shaping energy policy, but we must be honest brokers if we have any prayer of influencing coal policy on looming issues important to the future of coal like hazardous air pollutants, climate change, and federal dollars for investments in clean coal technology.

West Virginia’s Democratic power brokers are telling their supporters not to worry about ads like the one Natalie Tennant’s campaign released this week. These ads work, they say, and will help our candidates win. But those same power brokers ignore how much ads like this and comments like Nick Casey’s “not our problem” poison the political discussion in West Virginia.  Maybe they don’t care about that. Career campaign consultants do better the more ads there are, the nastier things get, and the less there is actual discussion by candidates with voters about real problems and various ideas for solving them. Sen. Byrd talked about the importance of avoiding “rigid mindsets,” and Sen. Jay Rockefeller forcefully reminded us of the dangers of “carefully orchestrated messages that strike fear in the hearts of West Virginians” and the “daily onslaught [that] declares that coal is under siege from harmful outside forces.”

Obama Global Warming

A microphone sits on a table as a member of the public steps down after addressing a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency hearing on tougher pollution restrictions, Tuesday, July 29, 2014, in Atlanta (AP Photo/David Goldman)

We’re not alone in this, especially this week as the EPA holds public hearings around the country (but not in the coalfields) about its carbon dioxide emissions rule.  Look at the way one of those hearings was described in The Washington Post, under the headline “Competing visions of cataclysm at an EPA hearing“:

On one side were the enviros in “Climate Action Now” T-shirts who came to pass out muffins and stand up for asthmatics. The Obama administration’s plan to force power plants to cut pollution 30 percent by 2030 is absurdly gentle, they argued at a public hearing Tuesday, and too toothless to save what one advocate called “civilization as we’ve known it.”

On the other side of the hearing at the Environmental Protection Agency were the reps for coal companies and coal states, like Rep. Shelly Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), who said her constituents see the proposed rule as “condemning our miners to lives of poverty and despair.”

The PR-driven nonsense behind a lot of this gives petitioning your government a weird show-business aspect, and it can create some uncomfortable moments for various people and groups. The United Mine Workers, for example, is planning a large rally in Pittsburgh to coincide with EPA’s hearing in that city.  But the mine workers are carefully avoiding some of the events in Pittsburgh, and trying not to have their union associated with others, such as a parade and a big coal industry rally-concert that labor groups say are being funded in part by the Koch Brothers. The uncomfortable factor was high enough that the UMWA’s press release quoted union President Cecil Roberts saying:

Ours is not a political rally. We aren’t going to be there to score political points. Others may be in Pittsburgh that day to do that, but they will not be associated with us. We will be there to exercise our right to petition our government and to stand up for our families, for our neighbors, for American jobs and for American communities.

Governor TomblinInterestingly, West Virginia Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin announced yesterday that he would attend the coal industry rally — one of the events the UMWA is avoiding — even though he and other West Virginia Democrats are scheduled to hold an anti-Koch Brothers event in Logan this weekend.  Chris Stadelman, Tomblin’s communications director, said he didn’t know anything about Koch involvement in the Pittsburgh event and didn’t see any contradiction in the governor attending both events:

The sponsors I am aware of are the Pennsylvania Coal Alliance, West Virginia Coal Association and Ohio Coal Association. Bill Raney invited Governor Tomblin to participate, and the governor will be attending and speaking on behalf of West Virginians who would be directly affected by the EPA’s proposed rules … At both events, the governor is speaking on behalf of West Virginia families and coal miners and working to protect their futures and their economic security. His message is consistent and without contradiction.

Just to be clear, the Logan anti-Koch event is not about protecting coal miners from EPA … as the Logan Banner reported:

WV Democratic Party Member Daniel van Hoogstraten said the rally is a chance to fight Republican money from outside the state. He says money from places like Wall Street and the Koch brothers is flooding in an attempting to influence W.Va. elections … Van Hoogstraten says this is a chance for the Democratic Party to stand up and rally voters with the message that “West Virginia is not for sale.”

So what we have is not a discussion about policy, about how to move the nation and our state forward — but a cheer-leading competition in which what is most important is scoring some easy points for “standing up” for or “fighting” for something that focus groups say people respond to when they go to vote. Don’t West Virginians — all Americans, really — deserve better than that?

Think I’m wrong? Think all of this stuff hasn’t gone too far? Well, then read this from a story by the Gazette’s David Gutman, in which the Tennant campaign shamelessly tries to attack Rep. Shelley Moore Capito for daring to support reductions in greenhouse gases and improvements in energy efficiency:

In the ongoing battle over each candidate’s record on coal, Tennant’s campaign recently sent the Gazette-Mail an older letter hinting that Capito might not have always been so reluctant to talk about climate change.

While few would question Capito’s support of coal, Tennant’s campaign pointed to a letter that Capito wrote to the Department of Energy in 2009, requesting funds for a West Virginia manufacturing plant from the federal stimulus package.

“America’s abundant manufacturing capabilities will expedite the nation’s shift away from fossil fuels, reduce dependence on foreign oil and speed reductions in greenhouse gas emissions,” Capito wrote to then-Energy Secretary Steven Chu. “As you review [the] application, you will find that the two energy efficiency investments proposed will vastly reduce energy consumption and significantly reduce the plant’s carbon footprint.”

All of this reminds me of the great speech that a former coal miner and former UMWA president, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka gave a few years ago about the future of coal. The thing that always stuck out to me was not just the way that Rich spoke about his own first-hand experiences with climate change, but also how he described the way folks where he came from feel when they hear talk about closing down coal and replacing it with “green jobs.”

Here, for example:

… To those who say climate risk is a far off problem, I can tell you that I have hunted the same woods in Western Pennsylvania my entire life and climate change is happening now—I see it in the summer droughts that kill the trees, the warm winter nights when flowers bloom in January, the snows that fall less frequently and melt more quickly.

But also:

People I grew up with dig the coal that lights the lights and heats the buildings all across this country today. The world we know exists because coal miners go down to the mines. But the carbon emissions from that coal, and from oil and natural gas, and agriculture and so much other human activity– causes global warming, and we have to act to cut those emissions, and act now.

Now, some people’s response is to demand that we end all coal production now—they say “End Coal.”

Given that reality, it’s important to think about how that slogan is heard in places like my hometown of Nemacolin, Pennsylvania. Nemacolin lives on coal—the coal mine my grandfather and my father went down to every day of their working lives, the power plant the mine feeds, the rail lines that carry coal to other plants. When these folks hear “End Coal,” it sounds like a threat to destroy the value of our homes, to shut our schools and churches, to drive us away from the place our parents and grandparents are buried, to take away the work that for more than a hundred years has made us who we are.

Rich is right. When my friends at certain national environmental groups cheer the closure of another coal-fired power plant, they seldom say a word — even as an afterthought — about the hardships that move might create for workers in that community. Maybe some new, greener jobs will be created, eventually. But that doesn’t help the guy who has a mortgage to pay right now, and two kids in college right now.  It doesn’t save the pension he was promised for doing the hard work of helping to power our nation, probably sacrificing his health in the process. That kind of kicking coalfield people when they’re down doesn’t help us anymore than silly and cynical ads like the one Natalie Tennant is running.

West Virginians have a lot at stake in this discussion.  But until more time is spent trying to bring differing viewpoints together, instead of trying to score political points, we’re not going to move forward.