Coal Tattoo

Coals War

A few weeks ago, I attended a really uplifting meeting over at Hawks Nest State Park (written about previously here and here) where a lot of smart people really focused on the nuts and bolts of how West Virginia can reach out and use what resources the federal government is making available to help our coalfield communities recover from the downfall of the mining industry.

One of the lingering questions from that meeting was how far along President Obama’s nearly $5 billion aid package for the coalfields is in Congress.  Turns out, not very far. And if these proposals are to survive, it sounds like it’s going to be in spite of — certainly not because of — the efforts of West Virginia’s congressional delegation. Here’s what we reported in Sunday’s Gazette-Mail:

West Virginia’s representatives in Washington don’t sound particularly enthusiastic about the Obama administration’s proposals to funnel nearly $5 billion in various economic aid to coalfield communities that are struggling as the state’s mining industry continues to decline.

A spokeswoman for at least one of West Virginia’s five-member congressional delegation — first-term Republican Rep. Alex Mooney — was especially clear when asked if her boss supported President Obama’s “Power Plus Plan,” a collection of budgetary and legislative proposals aimed at diversifying coalfield community economies.

“No, Representative Mooney does not support the Power Plus Plan,” Meredith Jones said.

You have to hand it to Rep. Mooney and his staff. At least they were up front about where they stand — though I couldn’t manage to get them to provide a coherent explanation of why in the world a West Virginia congressman would oppose money to help the communities in his district.

Most of the delegation took the route that Sen. Shelley Moore Capito chose with this statement:

While Senator Capito welcomes any investments that help distressed communities and create lasting jobs, it’s important to remember the catastrophic effects this administration’s proposed regulations have had on West Virginia. The administration has instituted sweeping regulations that have destroyed our economy’s very foundation without considering the real-world impacts, and funding alone won’t fix that.

Most of this line of thinking, of course, ignores the fact that much of the Southern West Virginia coal industry’s woes have more to do with geology and economic competition than they do with environmental regulation, and simply perpetuates the false notion that if we can just hold off until Obama is out of office, the next coal boom is right around the corner. (For more about this, see the excellent blog series underway here and here by Jeremy Richardson of the Union of Concerned Scientists).

Rally For Coal

Probably the most remarkable statement, though, came from a spokesman for the only Democratic member of West Virginia’s congressional delegation:

I think right now the Senator needs to see more of the details in the plan. I know there are good elements and bad elements, but one specific the Senator is eager to see is how the Administration is going to deal with the reality that coal will be part of our energy portfolio for the next 30 years.

Seriously? Does Sen. Manchin really not yet have details of President Obama’s budget proposals? They were announced in early February. It’s hard to imagine that the late Sen. Robert C. Byrd would still be waiting for someone to give him details for a proposal that promised nearly $5 billion in help for struggling coalfield communities.

We hear a lot of talk about how the change in party leadership at the Legislature is taking West Virginia in all sorts of new directions. But how is the attack on prevailing wage by the new Republican leadership any different from the attack on workers compensation benefits (see here and here) carried out by Democrats? Is it really one party or the other that’s been running West Virginia for all these years?

West Virginia is at a crossroads, and our leaders in most cases are taking the route marked “more of the same.”  That was made evident against last week by one of the first ads that Jim Justice’s gubernatorial campaign put out:

During that meeting at Hawks Nest in June, White House official Jason Walsh made the great point that, while the debate about what’s killing coal will continue, the administration had hoped that everyone could come together around these proposals to help struggling communities. And there’s simply no question that many of the things that our state can do to help coalfield communities — like education and infrastructure improvements — would be good for those communities even if some other coal boom miraculously appears.

In an op-ed in Sunday’s Gazette-Mail, Brandon Dennison of the Coalfield Development Corp, wisely explained:

Sure, coal will remain in the energy “mix” for decades to come, but probably not on a scale nearly as grand as before. Waiting is not a wise strategy.

This rise, decline and evolution of industries is a common theme throughout American history, repeating time and time again. West Virginia is, right now, at the epicenter of an industrial and technological evolution the equal of any in our past, as one of the dominant industries in our region approaches the end of its natural life cycle.

Some say that decline is being exacerbated by government; others say it’s driven by the market; and others say it’s the unavoidable fate of being reliant on finite resources. Perhaps the truth is some mix of the three.

But really, the cause is beside the point. All the debating and finger-pointing is in fact a smokescreen for what West Virginians really need to be worried about: the future, and what opportunities are coming that can sustain our communities for the decades ahead.

So maybe if West Virginia leaders aren’t willing to just put down their shovels, they might help us get out of this hole by taking a break now and again from digging so they can help do a little climbing.