Coal Tattoo

Coalfield elections: Asking all the wrong questions


Gazette photo by Lawrence Pierce

The ongoing campaigns for U.S. Senate and House certainly aren’t doing much to bring about a reasoned debate about the future of the Southern West Virginia coalfields.  Candidates continue to run from issues like the public health dangers of mountaintop removal coal mining and insist that climate change simply isn’t our problem.  What little discussion there is about coal mine health and safety is muddled in a string of questionable television ads, and no one wants to be anywhere near the cold, hard facts that the southern coal counties are facing an inevitable decline in that industry, no matter what EPA does or doesn’t do.

This refusal to truly confront and openly discuss important issues was there for all to see in last week’s U.S. Senate debate between Rep. Shelley Moore Capito and Secretary of State Natalie Tennant. It was bad enough that groups like the AARP and the West Virginia Press Association wouldn’t let all the candidates who are on the ballot take part. But they put Hoppy Kercheval in there as the moderator, and allowed Hoppy to simply ignore important questions. This is exactly the way the public discussion was controlled two years ago when public relations executive Charles Ryan — whose firm created the “Friends of Coal” campaign — was the one asking the questions during a West Virginia gubernatorial debate.

I know, I know … Hoppy asked a climate change question. So shouldn’t anyone who dares to think that issue is important walk away happy? Well, maybe we should at least be glad the question on this issue wasn’t something like, “So, Secretary of State Tennant, why do you actually buy into this hoax made up by unethical scientists, thugs at EPA and tree huggers?”

Seriously. Can’t the media in West Virginia at some point start to move beyond asking candidates if they believe the science, as if science was something to either believe or not believe? Apparently not, because Hoppy’s one question about the issue went like this:

Both you and your opponent have spoken out repeatedly against the EPA’s regulations on carbon emissions. The EPA and the Obama administration say they are trying to reduce carbon emissions and get other countries to do follow suit to save the planet. A recent report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change concluded, according to the New York Times, that ice caps are melting, water supplies are coming under stress, heat waves and heavy rains are intensifying, coral reefs are dying. Do you believe these scientists are simply wrong and if they’re not wrong, if they’re correct, don’t we have an obligation to do something about it?

Congresswoman Capito answered:

Well, I think that weaving a balance between the economy and the environment is always difficult and we’re faced with it here in West Virginia, because we are so blessed with the natural resources that power this country. But the EPA overreach from this administration is just unbelievable. The new clean air [rule] for the existing coal fired power plants, not one power plant in the state meets those parameters set out by the president. My opponent supports his policies, so she must support this. So what are we suppose to do? Let’s have something that makes sense. Let’s have technologies that are reachable and affordable. The president says we need to lead on this. Well, if the president is leading the globe on this issue, and China and India Japan and all the other nations are not following, then he’s just taking a walk. And he’s taking a walk and he’s taking a walk at the expense of the men and women of the West Virginia coalfields. Seven thousands jobs and more to come. This is a travesty. We have got to top this. That’s what this election is about.

Then came what might have been the high point in the debate, when Hoppy actually called out Congresswoman Capito for not answering the question.

Hoppy: Point of clarification, do you think the scientists are wrong?

Rep. Capito:  I don’t necessarily think the climate is changing no. I think we have to find a balance and a way to address this without hurting the heartland of this country and without hurting West Virginia families.

For the record, Rep. Capito later told the Gazette’s David Gutman that she misspoke, but in doing so, showed that she has little grasp on the issue, what with not understanding the difference between climate and weather. Regardless, Rep. Capito’s response during the debate gave Natalie Tennant a great opportunity to jump in there and really distinguish herself from Rep. Capito and coal and climate issues, making a strong statement about what it all means for West Virginia’s future.  To her credit, Secretary of State Tennant did manage to get this out:

I have listened to the scientists. I know there is a consensus and I don’t disagree with them.

But then she just had to go on with this:

At the same time, I don’t think we need to choose between clean air and clean coal or clean air and good paying jobs, rather. Because I know that we have the technology that can meet the demands. That’s why I’ve challenged the president. I’ve challenged the EPA. We have the National Energy Technology Lab in Morgantown that can develop carbon capture storage, CCS. I’ve challenged the president to use the $8 billion that’s in the Department of Energy in guaranteed loans that instead of using them as loans, take the money, directly invest, have the technology that’s going to save our jobs, and that’s going to have technology use around the world that will make coal more competitive. That’s why the United Mine Workers have endorsed me. They’ve looked at me in this race and they know I will save their jobs.

Senate Debate West Virginia

Associated Press photo

This is where better questions, or at least jumping in with another follow-up query, is what’s needed in these sorts of events. For example, Hoppy could and should have challenged Secretary Tennant to explain exactly how her proposal to funnel still more federal money into CCS programs would do much to actually get this stuff deployed, absent a federal emissions reductions mandate that puts a price on carbon. Obviously, Hoppy should have pressed Rep. Capito on her answer that she didn’t think the climate was changing. But, he should also have asked her what sort of policy exactly it is that she believes “makes sense” for a “balance” between burning coal and burning up the climate.

It’s easy to understand why Hoppy doesn’t press candidates for real answers on climate change. It’s harder to understand why he didn’t ask about other things, or press certain issues further. For example, Secretary of State Tennant repeatedly said that she is supported by coal miners, citing her endorsement by the United Mine Workers of America. Why didn’t Hoppy ask her how many of West Virginia’s miners are UMWA members, or how many she thinks don’t necessary vote with the union in national elections anymore?

But the thing that made the debate pretty much worthless on coal issues was Hoppy’s lack of a follow-up when Rep. Capito uttered this remark, when talking about the decline in coal jobs in our state:

This is directly attributable, every single mining job that is lost is attributable to the policies of president Obama and Harry Reid who are supporting my opponent’s election.

Seriously now, this isn’t a “Coal is West Virginia” ad on MetroNews. This is a U.S. Senate debate. And it’s just not debatable that every single mining job lost is not directly attributable to President Obama, his EPA or to Senate President Harry Reid. There are many reasons for coal’s decline in Southern West Virginia, most notably the natural gas boom and the mining out of the better seams in the region (see here and here).

This was a great opportunity for Hoppy to steer the debate toward the real issue, by reminding the candidates that even a victory over EPA isn’t going to save the Southern West Virginia coal industry, and asking both candidates exactly where their plan is for diversifying the region’s economy. Instead, he let Rep. Capito get away with an absurd statement, just as he let Secretary of State Tennant mislead coal miners into thinking that putting her in the Senate will save their jobs.