Coal Tattoo

AP report: Old-style coal plants expanding

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In this photo taken Wednesday, April 28, 2010, Jon LaCour, manager of the Wygen III coal-fired plant, looks over pollution control equipment built onto the recently completed $247 million plant in Wyodak, Wyo. Utilities across the country are building dozens of old style coal plants that will cement the industry’s standing as the largest industrial source of climate changing gases for decades. (AP Photo/Matthew Brown)

Here’s a story just out by Matthew Brown of The Associated Press:

WYODAK, Wyo. (AP) — Utilities across the country are building dozens of old-style coal plants that will cement the industry’s standing as the largest industrial source of climate-changing gases for years to come.

An Associated Press examination of U.S. Department of Energy records and information provided by utilities and trade groups shows that more than 30 traditional coal plants have been built since 2008 or are under construction.

The construction wave stretches from Arizona to Illinois and South Carolina to Washington, and comes despite growing public wariness over the high environmental and social costs of fossil fuels, demonstrated by tragic mine disasters in West Virginia, the Gulf oil spill and wars in the Middle East.

The expansion, the industry’s largest in two decades, represents an acknowledgment that highly touted “clean coal” technology is still a long ways from becoming a reality and underscores a renewed confidence among utilities that proposals to regulate carbon emissions will fail. The Senate last month scrapped the leading bill to curb carbon emissions following opposition from Republicans and coal-state Democrats.

“Building a coal-fired power plant today is betting that we are not going to put a serious financial cost on emitting carbon dioxide,” said Severin Borenstein, director of the Energy Institute at the University of California-Berkeley. “That may be true, but unless most of the scientists are way off the mark, that’s pretty bad public policy.”

In this photo taken Wednesday, April 28, 2010, Marty Snell with Black Hills Power monitors a bank of computer screens used to track operations of the Wygen III power plant in Wyodak, Wyo. Utilities across the country are building dozens of old style coal plants that will cement the industry’s standing as the largest industrial source of climate changing gases for decades. (AP Photo/Matthew Brown)


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New Montana coal railroad being challenged

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One of the common complaints from coal industry folks here in Appalachia is that regulators and environmentalists come after them, but leave the huge surface mines of the west alone.

We saw recently this isn’t necessarily true, when a coalition of groups filed a petition seeking to for the U.S. EPA to put in place new air quality standards for coal mines, in large part because of dust from western coal operations.

Yesterday, there was another example, with this Associated Press story:

A conservation group has asked the federal Surface Transportation Board to reconsider its approval of a proposed $550 million railroad that would open new areas of Montana’s Powder River Basin to coal mining.

The Northern Plains Resource Council said in its request Monday that the board’s 2007 approval of the Tongue River Railroad failed to take into account how burning coal contributes to climate change.

The group wants a new environmental study of the rail line. Its petition to reopen the case is the latest in a string of legal maneuverings by environmentalists seeking to stall Gov. Brian Schweitzer’s push for a major expansion of coal mining in the state.

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Rockefeller defends tax breaks for big coal

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Buried among all the other coverage of President Obama’s budget proposal there have been a couple of pieces (see here and here) about the administration’s efforts to slow government subsidies for fossil fuels that contribute to global warming.

The White House explained the proposal — which would save the government $2.3 billion in coal tax breaks over a 10-year period — this way:

As we work to create a clean energy economy, it is counterproductive to spend taxpayer dollars on incentives that run counter to this national priority.  To further this goal, the Budget eliminates tax preferences and funding for programs that provide inefficient fossil fuel subsidies, which impede investment in clean energy sources and undermine efforts to deal with the threat of climate change.  We are eliminating 12 tax breaks for oil, gas, and coal companies, closing loopholes that will raise $36 billion over the next decade.  Moreover, this leadership in eliminating subsidies will also encourage prompter action by the major emerging economies to phase out their subsidies, which are in the hundreds of billions of dollars annually.

Of course, this proposal is meeting immediate opposition in the nation’s coalfields, as evidenced by this story in the Lexington Herald-Leader,  in which Kentucky officials “worry will mean heavy job losses in economically poor but coal-rich regions of Appalachia.”

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Gazette photo by Chip Ellis

Given the numerous challenges working against any substantial recovery of the region’s coal industry, and that production is projected to decline significantly in the coming decades, diversification of Central Appalachian economies is now more critical than ever. State and local leaders should support new economic development across the region, especially in the rural areas set to be the most impacted by a sharp decline in the region’s coal economy.

That’s the take-home message from a major new report issued today by the Morgantown consulting group Downstream Strategies. The report is called, “The Decline of Central Appalachian Coal and the Need for Economic Diversification.”

It’s must-read material for anyone who cares about the future of the Appalachian coalfields, and especially for elected officials who keep hoping that the next coal boom is just around the corner.

evanhansen.jpgrory.jpgAuthors Rory McIlmoil and Evan Hansen  make the case that a host of factors — competition from other coal-producing regions, rising interest in natural gas and renewable energy, and the depletion of Central Appalachia’s best reserves — has prompted a decline in regional coal production that is unlikely to be reversed. In fact, they report:

After strong and increased production through the mid-1990s, regional production last peaked in 1997 at 290 million tons. Even as national production continued to grow, by 2008, Central Appalachian production has fallen 20 percent to 235 million tons.

Recent projections indicate that — despite substantial coal reserves — annual production may decline another 46 percent by 2020, and 58 percent by 2035, to 99 million tons.

And, importantly, that’s without considering the potential impacts of climate change legislation or new restrictions on mountaintop removal coal mining. Both of those policies are likely to further squeeze the region’s coal industry, the report says, making it all the more important to begin planning for such events:

Should substantial declines occur as projected, coal-producing counties will face significant losses in employment and tax revenue, and state government will collect fewer taxes from the coal industry. State policy-makers across the Central Appalachian region should therefore begin taking the necessary steps to ensure that new jobs and sources of revenue will be available in the counties likely to experience the greatest impact from the decline.

The report adds:

While there are numerous options available, the development of the region’s renewable energy resources and a strong focus on energy efficiency offer immediate and significant opportunities to begin diversifying the economy.

In a news release, Rory said:

Coal has contributed significantly to local and state economies in Central Appalachia, but production has fallen substantially over the last 12 years as other coal basins and sources of fuel have become more competitive. This trend is expected to continue as mining costs increase due to the depletion of the lowest cost coal reserves, and as new environmental regulations are implemented. As this happens, local and state economies will need new sources of jobs and revenue to replace coal mining jobs and taxes.

And Evan added:

Given that coal production is projected to decline significantly in the coming decades, diversification of Central Appalachian economies is now more critical than ever. State leaders should use this legislative session to increase support for new economic development across the region, especially in the rural areas set to be the most impacted by a sharp decline in the region’s coal economy.

We’ve talked a lot on Coal Tattoo about the concept of “peak coal,” and  about what greenhouse gas limits and new restrictions on valley fills would mean for the coal industry and the region as a whole. We’ve discussed options for “green jobs” in the coalfields, including an op-ed Evan co-wrote about an abandoned mine cleanup project that Downstream Strategies was working on as one example, and Rory’s project in his former job promoting the Coal River Wind Project (and Evan’s report on the economic benefits of it).

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Sen. Byrd: “Coal Must Embrace the Future”

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This is the full text of a statement today by Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va. — And audio is available by clicking in this button:

For more than 100 years, coal has been the backbone of the Appalachian economy. Even today, the economies of more than 20 states depend to some degree on the mining of coal. About half of all the electricity generated in America and about one quarter of all the energy consumed globally is generated by coal.

Change is no stranger to the coal industry.  Think of the huge changes which came with the onset of the Machine Age in the late 1800’s.  Mechanization has increased coal production and revenues, but also has eliminated jobs, hurting the economies of coal communities. In 1979, there were 62,500 coal miners in the Mountain State. Today there are about 22,000. In recent years, West Virginia has seen record high coal production and record low coal employment.

And change is undeniably upon the coal industry again.  The increased use of mountaintop removal mining means that fewer miners are needed to meet company production goals. Meanwhile the Central Appalachian coal seams that remain to be mined are becoming thinner and more costly to mine. Mountaintop removal mining, a declining national demand for energy, rising mining costs and erratic spot market prices all add up to fewer jobs in the coal fields.

These are real problems. They affect real people. And West Virginia’s elected officials are rightly concerned about jobs and the economic impact on local communities.  I share those concerns.  But the time has come to have an open and honest dialogue about coal’s future in West Virginia.

Let’s speak the truth. The most important factor in maintaining coal-related jobs is demand for coal. Scapegoating and stoking fear among workers over the permitting process is counter-productive.

Coal companies want a large stockpile of permits in their back pockets because that implies stability to potential investors. But when coal industry representatives stir up public anger toward federal regulatory agencies, it can damage the state’s ability to work with those agencies to West Virginia’s benefit. This, in turn, may create the perception of ineffectiveness within the industry, which can drive potential investors away.

Let’s speak a little more truth here. No deliberate effort to do away with the coal industry could ever succeed in Washington because there is no available alternative energy supply that could immediately supplant the use of coal for base load power generation in America. That is a stubborn fact that vexes some in the environmental community, but it is reality.

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Massey helps bring Boy Scouts center to W.Va.

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blankenshipap.jpgGazette business editor Eric Eyre has the story today that a 10,600-acre site beside the New River Gorge National River in Fayette County will become the permanent home of the Boy Scouts of America’s National Jamboree.

The Boy Scouts of America press release doesn’t mention this,  but Massey Energy Co. said today that it worked with the Boy Scouts to transfer mineral and surface property rights to the land that was acquired for the new Scouting site. Additionally, Massey Energy pledged a $500,000 contribution to support construction of the project.

The Massey press release says both of the company’s actions “were integral to moving the project forward.”

Massey Energy President Don Blankenship said:

The Boy Scouts of America will always have a home in West Virginia. We are pleased to contribute to the economic development of Southern West Virginia and the personal development of thousands of Scouts from across the nation.

And Jack Furst, a Boy Scouts executive board member and project leader, said:

This project is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for the Boy Scouts of America and West Virginia. We are so pleased to have partnered with Massey Energy to turn the vision into a reality.

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As I mentioned yesterday, it’s coal day at the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works. Folks from the coal industry are testifying about the Senate climate change bill.

Mike Carey, president of the Ohio Coal Association, said what you would expect:

Without a doubt, this legislation which the committee is considering will devastate our communities, bankrupt our region, cause energy costs to soar across the country, and according to the EPA have almost no impact on global temperatures since China, India and the rest of the developing world will continue to increase their emissions.

But then there was Preston Chiaro, (above) chief executive for energy and minerals at Rio Tinto,  a huge worldwide coal company and the second largest coal producer in the United States, who told lawmakers:

Unmanaged climate change is a threat to our assets, our shareholders, and our employees, and also to civil society and political institutions in many of the countries in which we operate and across the globe.

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WVU’s Clements won’t talk about Bob Murray donation

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Some Coal Tattoo readers had questions following my post last week about West Virginia University (my alma mater) naming a chair in its mining engineering department for controversial coal operator Bob Murray in exchange for a $1 million donation to the school.

Does WVU want students to learn the kinds of mine safety practices by Murray’s company that led to the deaths of six miners and three rescuers — and prompted more than $1 million in safety fines and calls for a criminal investigation — at the Crandall Canyon disaster in August 2007?

Or maybe WVU thinks Murray set a good example for students when he tried to use his friendship with Republican U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky  to get federal mine safety inspectors to back off enforcing the law at one of Murray’s mines?

Perhaps WVU especially thinks that students could learn from watching Murray’s nationally televised tirades against labor unions, government inspectors and the media  while families of his workers waited for word on whether those Crandall Canyon miners were dead or alive?

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Caperton vs. Massey, redux

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As my buddy Paul Nyden reported over the weekend, the rehearing of the big Hugh Caperton vs. Massey Energy case is set for an argument before the state Supreme Court on Tuesday, the day after the Labor Day holiday.

Of course, this rehearing comes after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that West Virginia’s Chief Justice, Brent Benjamin, should have recused himself from the case because Massey CEO Don Blankenship spent millions to bankroll Benjamin’s election to the court in 2004.

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Patriot Coal’s announcement two weeks ago that it is closing the huge Samples Mine, one of the largest mountaintop removal operations in the region, rightfully got a lot of media attention.

A lot of folks, including coal industry lobbyists and Coal Tattoo readers, blamed environmentalists and the push to end or at least much more strictly regulation mountaintop removal. Patriot officials made no mention of any permit holdups or other such issues, instead blaming the poor coal market and a corporate decision ” to concentrate production at lower-cost mining complexes.”

But there’s another part of this story that is pretty important … Patriot is making a concerted effort to re-examine its ability to mine its coal reserves with underground mining, rather than with huge mountaintop removal operations. And what are they finding? Well, here’s what Mark Schroeder, Patriot’s senior vice president, told industry analysts during a conference call just a few days before the announcement that Samples was closing:

The positive … for us is that as things get more difficult on the surface side, we have wonderful underground  reserves that are out there, some of which are ready to go.

Whenever someone calls for a ban on mountaintop removal or even for slightly tougher regulations, the National Mining Association says such moves would jeopardize thousands of jobs and threaten the nation’s energy supplyBut that’s not what Patriot Coal (the third largest producer of coal in the eastern U.S.) is telling its stockholders …

execs_schroeder.jpgSchroeder was responding to questions from stock analysts — the guys who advise investors about whether to buy coal company stock or not — about what impact continued controversy over mountaintop removal permits was going to have on Patriot. He continued:

It’s certainly on the negative side if the permits don’t come around, but we are blessed with having a good base of underground reserves as well.

The coal out there in many of the properties is interchangeable and we typically in our contracts have the ability to substitute from one mine to another mine, so it gives us some additional latitude to move things around. If a surface mine is not operating because of a permit issue, we can go underground, we can continue to source the customer, etc.

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Coal industry planning big Labor Day event

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This just in from the folks at Massey Energy:

*Working Families to Hold “Friends of America” Rally*

*Featured Guests to Include Sean Hannity, Ted Nugent, and Hank Williams Jr.* *Free Labor Day Festival to Support American Jobs*

A coalition of local employers, associations, and elected officials will
honor American working families with a free Labor Day “Friends of
America” concert and rally near Holden, West Virginia.

“Now more than ever, it is the time for working people and businesses to
join together and speak up about the economic damage caused by an
overreaching government. For our communities to grow and prosper, our
people need freedom,” said Art Kirkendoll, president of the Logan County
Commission. “The Friends of America rally is about standing up for our
freedoms, our families and the American way of life.” **

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What does coal cost Kentucky?

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The coal industry takes $115 million more from Kentucky’s state government annually in services and programs than it contributes in taxes.

That’s the lead of the lead of the Lexington Herald-Leader’s story today about a new study examining the costs and benefits of coal-mining on Kentucky.

The study comes on the heels of a peer-reviewed paper by a West Virginia University researcher that found the coal industry costs the Appalachian region five times more in early deaths than it provides in economic benefits. The Kentucky study was put together by the Berea-based Mountain Association for Community Economic Development, or MACED, which spent a year examining the coal industry’s impact on the state’s general fund and road fund. (Who is MACED? Find out here).

The study is available here. It want to point out that this is not, as the WVU study was, a scientific paper published in a peer-reviewed journal. But it’s still newsworthy.

Of course, my buddy Bill Caylor at the Kentucky Coal Association doesn’t need to read the study to challenge it, as the Herald-Leader’s intrepid John Cheves pointed out:

Bill Caylor, who lobbies Frankfort for the Kentucky Coal Association, said he didn’t know about the study and thus had no specific rebuttal, but he’s sure it’s inaccurate. The coal industry contributes plenty and is the largest private employer in some Eastern Kentucky counties, Caylor said.

“I’ve got a lot of choice words that I could offer on this, but it would sound pretty bad,” Caylor said. “It’s voodoo economics.”

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Coal Tattoo update: Back online now

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Anti-mountaintop removal protesters were arrested at the Kayford Mountain mining operation as part of several peaceful actions against the coal industry over the holiday weekend. Photo by Antrim Caskey, via Climate Ground Zero.

OK, folks, sorry for my disengagement there for several days. But I’m back and there’s lots of news to pass on …

First, the peaceful civil disobedience against mountaintop removal coal-mining continued over the Memorial Day weekend, with 17 arrests at three different sites: the Kayford Mountain mine (see photo above), the Brushy Fork impoundment, and outside Massey’s Marfork operation (which includes Brush Fork).

Climate Ground Zero, which is organizing the protest actions, has  descriptions of what happened at each site here, along with video and photo slide shows. The Gazette had a report on the events on Sunday, and The Associated Press did a brief follow-up story. There’s also more on the site of Mountain Justice, another group involved in organizing the protests.

One interesting point, I thought, was that the Kayford protest — a “lockdown” in which activists chained themselves to a giant dump truck — targeted not Massey Energy, but Patriot Coal.

Sunday’s paper also featured a front-page article by Associated Press business writer Tim Huber outlining the coal industry’s complaints about the Obama administration’s policies on strip mining and global warming, and a piece by the Gazette’s Paul Nyden about the new coal tax report issued by  the West Virginia Center for Budget and Policy and Downstream Strategies.

Thanks to all you folks who commented and kept is clean and thoughtful over the long weekend. Unfortunately, there were some readers who weren’t so well behaved. So in the future, when I’m going to be off line for a couple of days, I think we’re going to have to put a “time out” on the blog comment section.

Joe Manchin, Jim Justice and coal-mine safety

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When coal operator and businessman James C. Justice II announced he had bought The Greenbrier resort, West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin issued a statement:

“I am so pleased and proud that Jim Justice has agreed to purchase The Greenbrier. He is a true West Virginian who is committed to community service. He’s also a successful businessman who I am sure will put his heart and soul and expertise to work to ensure that The Greenbrier will remain a premier resort that continues to draw people from around the world and makes every West Virginian proud.

“Congratulations to Jim and all the good employees and the residents of Greenbrier County who truly make this resort special.”

You have to wonder if Manchin ever gets updates from Ronald Wooten, director of the state Office of Miners Health, Safety and Training.

If he did, Manchin might recognize the photo I’ve posted above. It’s the truck that Danny L. Jones, 38, of Bradshaw, was driving when he died at one of Justice’s mines back on Aug. 22, 2008.

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Montana coal reserves

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Interesting story in from The Associated Press:

 BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) — A new appraisal of vast state-owned coal in southeastern Montana finds the state would reap $1.4 billion in royalty payments over the next four decades if it leased the property for mining.

Development of the Otter Creek tracts — more than a billion tons of coal co-owned by the state and Great Northern Properties — could open the door to a dramatic expansion of the region’s coal industry. It also could facilitate construction of a long-delayed rail line, the Tongue River Railroad.

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Fishing with a Friend of Coal

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(Bassmaster Elite Series champion Jeremy Starks, a West Virginia native, speaks to Walker Machinery employees on Tuesday from the back of his new fishing boat and truck. He was joined by former Marshall football coach Bob Pruett and Gov. Joe Manchin. Starks’ Bassmaster season begins next week in Texas. Gazette photo by Chris Dorst)

Environmental activists fighting mountaintop removal aren’t the only ones with a little bit of star power on their side. He might be popular with a different audience than Ashley Judd, but  Bassmaster Elite Series champion Jeremy Starks is doing what he can to promote West Virginia’s coal industry.

We had an item in today’s Gazette about Starks and the start of this year’s Bassmaster season. It shows Starks’ boat, which features a Friends of Coal logo and a message about “Clean Coal Power.”

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Benjamin, Blankenship and ‘reasonable people’

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My colleague, Dr. Paul J. Nyden, reported from Washington in today’s Gazette about the U.S. Supreme Court argument in the Brent Benjamin-Don Blankenship case.  The Gazette editorialized on the issue as well.

Just about everybody else in the media world seems to have offered their view as well, with perhaps the most significant commentary coming from The New York Times, which editorialized the morning of the argument:

This case offers the nation’s top court the opportunity to make clear that judges who receive outsize campaign contributions have a duty to recuse themselves. Although not all contributions implicate due process, Mr. Blankenship’s multimillion-dollar quest to tilt the scales of justice surely does. It is vitally important for the Supreme Court to say so.

Sadly, the West Virginia case, while extreme, points to an alarming trend. It comes at a moment when judicial neutrality — and the appearance of neutrality — basic to due process are under a growing threat from big-money state judicial campaigns and the special-interest contributions that fuel them.

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Still more about Benjamin

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As the controversy grew for months over West Virginia Supreme Court Chief Justice Brent Benjamin not recusing himself from a major Massey Energy case before the court, Benjamin has been pretty quiet about the whole thing. Citing judicial ethics rules, Benjamin has consistently declined to comment.

But the court’s PR staff certainly hasn’t. They’ve sent out letters to the editor defending Benjamin and urged reporters to quote liberally from the opinion in which the chief justice took 40 pages to explain why he didn’t have a conflict of interest hearing a case involving Don Blankenship’s company.

Then Monday, on the eve of the big U.S. Supreme Court oral argument in the case, the Supreme Court’s PR staff sent out a press release they said summarized Benjamain’s “dispositive voting record” in cases involving Massey or its subsidiaries.

[UPDATED — Transcript of the U.S. Supreme Court argument is available here.]

Based on this list, the press release concludes:

Overall, Chief Justice Benjamin voted against the interests of Massey Energy or its subsidiary 81.6% of the time. Most of these votes occurred before the Caperton v. Massey Energy case was decided, and involve votes in cases which were decided by unanimous and non-unanimous votes of the Court. (Of course, in the rehearing of the Caperton case, Chief Justice Benjamin appointed two of the acting Justices after the recusal of Justices Maynard and Starcher and those two circuit judges split their decision, one voting for Massey and one voting against Massey.) According to information which was in the file or which was referenced in local news reports, all votes by Chief Justice Benjamin represented votes against the financial interests of Massey Energy of approximately $317 million.

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Obama, Manchin and coal

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(President Barack Obama talks with W.Va. Gov. Joe Manchin following a White House dinner with the nation’s governors. AP photo)

The Associated Press had a story the other day about a letter that the governors of Colorado, Utah and Wyoming sent to President Barack Obama, urging the president to fund development of so-called “clean coal” projects in western coal states.

It struck me as a little odd, because West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin is buddies with Wyoming Gov. Dave Freudenthal, and the pair have worked together before on coal issues that affect the two states. But Manchin wasn’t part of this letter to Obama.

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