Coal Tattoo

Jim Justice championing energy efficiency?

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Jim Justice

 

Here’s an unexpected announcement that just came in from the Jim Justice for governor campaign:

Yesterday, businessman Jim Justice visited Bridgeport High School in Harrison County and announced his plan to retrofit West Virginia’s older schools, public buildings, and commercial properties. In Harrison County alone, 19 school facilities have been upgraded and are already seeing lower energy bills.

By making older structures more energy efficient, Justice wants to cut costs and put people to work. His initiative is budget-neutral and aims to lower utility costs by retrofitting public schools, hospitals, college campuses, airports, libraries, state agencies, and other old buildings across West Virginia.

Justice said:

At The Greenbrier we’ve cut costs and put people to work by investing in energy efficiencies. I want to retrofit buildings across the state so that we can cut utility bills and create new jobs.

The Clarksburg paper had this story about the event yesterday.  And as Andrew Brown from the Gazette-Mail has reported, energy efficiency programs have not exactly been the most popular topic among political leaders and regulators in West Virginia.

It’s a pleasant surprise to hear Justice talking about an important, but not very sexy, issue like energy efficiency. He’s also presented what — for a candidate who has been harshly criticized for not really talking much about specific policies — is a somewhat detailed plan for tackling this initiative.

More broadly, though, it’s hard to understand how Justice can on one hand be promoting major energy efficiency efforts and then insisting that he’s somehow going to to make sure that West Virginia produces more coal than ever before.

But maybe this announcement is just a prelude to a really major move by Justice in which the Democratic candidate and coal operator will renounce his refusal to acknowledge the climate crisis and pledge to do all he can to help West Virginia do its part to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

President Barack Obama speaks during the third day of the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia , Wednesday, July 27, 2016. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

 

Last night, during a remarkable speech at the Democratic National Convention, President Obama again included coal miners in the discussion about what this election is about. Here’s what he said:

It can be frustrating, this business of democracy … When the other side refuses to compromise, progress can stall. People are hurt by the inaction. Supporters can grow impatient and worry that you’re not trying hard enough, that you’ve maybe sold out.

But I promise you, when we keep at it, when we change enough minds, when we deliver enough votes, then progress does happen. And if you doubt that, just ask the 20 million more people who have health care today. Just ask the Marine who proudly serves his country without hiding the husband that he loves.

If you want to fight climate change, we’ve got to engage not only young people on college campuses, we’ve got to reach out to the coal miner who’s worried about taking care of his family, the single mom worried about gas prices.

You can read the whole speech here or watch it below:

It’s a great point, and it reminds me of the speech that AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka — who knows a thing or two about coal miners — made more than four years ago, urging the nation to have a broader, more meaningful and more inclusive discussion about the future of coal. Trumka talked about how the folks he grew up with understood climate change, perhaps in more meaningful ways that some of the world’s top scientists:

And 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.

And he reminded environmental groups that policies that change our energy system affect real people in places like Southern West Virginia:

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.

So why, in an economy without an effective safety net, would the good men and women of my hometown and a thousand places like it surrender their whole lives and sit by while others try to force them to bear the cost of change.

The truth is that in many places – and not just places where coal is mined – there is fear that the “green economy” will turn into another version of the radical inequality that now haunts our society—another economy that works for the 1% and not for the 99%.

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Coal
It’s been about 15 years ago now. I was at an environmental journalism conference, attending a lunch session about climate change that included representatives of some of the big national and international environmental groups, along with a few industry people and some scientists.  The environmental groups were, of course, rightly making their case — as they continue to today —  that urgent action was needed to deal with carbon dioxide emissions

This was a long time ago and I was younger and probably even dumber than I am now. But I tried several times to engage these folks about what they thought a national climate policy should include in the way of economic, educational, or other help for coalfield communities where any mandated reduction in greenhouse gas emissions would almost certainly mean a significant decrease in about the only kind of good-paying jobs around.

Well, you would have thought I was from Mars. I mean, some folks were reasonably arguing that they were environmental groups. It was their job to work to protect the environment, public health and all that stuff. Their role in the process wasn’t to develop economic transition policies. They weren’t against those things necessarily. It just wasn’t their passion, and they didn’t think it was their job. But some folks were more hostile to my queries. They lectured me about how evil coal-mining was, and how they just didn’t understand why anyone in West Virginia wouldn’t welcome a complete end to the practice. Those folks had never been here. They certainly hadn’t been to a coal mine. They never came out and said so, but I certainly walked away feeling like they didn’t really care much what happened in places like Logan County, W.Va., as long as they got some sort of climate policy enacted.

I’ve been replaying those discussions a little in my mind this morning, and looking back at a piece that David Roberts wrote for Grist called, Should the feds bail out coal miners?  The piece was a follow-up to an earlier post he wrote called Democrats: Coal Country is just not that into you.

Now, let me make a disclaimer: I don’t really know David Roberts. Never met him. I do read his stuff all the time — and I certainly envy his great adventure taking a year away from social media. I’m a fan of his work. And I’m absolutely not trying to say that David Roberts doesn’t care about people in places like Logan County. From what I read, he just doesn’t strike me as that kind of guy. Far from it.

But I found his piece yesterday to not be nearly as thoughtful as I’ve come to expect from him. As he said on Twitter, maybe that’s just because I disagree with him about it.  But he wrote himself that it was “all pretty cursory” and just “idle musings,” and that he hoped what he wrote would get a discussion going. You should go read what he wrote, and maybe think about commenting.

David Roberts makes some good points. For example, he writes that some of the broad sort of New Deal programs that might really jump-start an economic transition in the Appalachian coalfields have little chance of getting through Congress right now. He points out that coal miners aren’t the only workers hurting in this country, and recommends broader programs that will help all workers, not just miners.

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Some media folks have picked up an on interesting report issued yesterday by the International Energy Agency, telling us:

… Many technologies with great potential for energy and emissions savings are making halting progress at best. Carbon capture and storage (CCS) is not seeing the necessary rates of investment to develop full-scale demonstration projects, and nearly half of new coal-fired power plants are still being built with inefficient technology.

But for my money, there’s a different report that coalfield political leaders across the U.S.  — especially elected officials here in West Virginia, like my good friend Sen. Joe Manchin (above) — should take the time to read. It’s a paper from Daedalus, the journal of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and it was written by Michael Greenstone of MIT and Adam Looney at the Bookings Institution as part of The Hamilton Project. The paper is called “Paying Too Much for Energy? The True Costs of Our Energy Choices,” and I first saw it referenced on the Washington Post’s Wonkblog, where Ezra Klein  Brad Plumer wrote:

There are two ways to think about the cost of energy. There’s the dollar amount that shows up on our utility bills or at the pump. And then there’s the “social cost” — all the adverse consequences that various energy sources, from coal to nuclear power, end up foisting on the public.

Economists have been working to quantify these social costs for some time: from the premature deaths due to air pollution to the damage wrought by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf Coast. Yet rarely has anyone tried to tally them up in a comprehensive fashion. Which is what makes this new paper from Michael Greenstone and Adam Looney of the Hamilton Project so valuable. The two economists sift through all of these economic papers and try to calculate what the price of various energy sources would actually look like if these external social costs were included.

What did they find? Well, as Klein explained:

The change is especially stark for coal. On market price alone, electricity from existing coal plants is easily America’s cheapest energy source, which explains why coal still provides 45 percent of the country’s electricity. But it’s mainly cheap because coal users don’t have to pay for the downsides: Soot from coal-fired power plants, for instance, still causes thousands of premature deaths each year and hundreds of thousands of illnesses, but those costs are borne by other people, in the former of shorter lives and higher health care bills.

If coal users had to pay these costs out of their own pockets, Greenstone and Looney estimate, the price of burning coal at an existing plant would jump from 3.2 cents per kilowatt hour to 8.8 cents per kilowatt hour. Natural gas looks much cheaper by comparison — in part because it emits half as much carbon-dioxide as coal and considerably less lung-damaging air pollution. And new coal plants would end up being more expensive than even wind or nuclear power.

But what I really liked about the paper was the context, such as this:

Whether by heating our homes in winter, keeping the lights on in our of½ces, powering factories that manufacture goods, or fueling our automobiles, energy drives our economy and supports our quality of life. Thanks in part to an economic infrastructure heavily dependent on energy use–roads and highways, ports and railways, broadband and computer networks, manufacturing plants and shipping facilities–American workers and businesses are among the most productive in the world and the most globally integrated. A century of innovation, fueled by cheap and plentiful energy largely from coal, oil, and natural gas, has allowed the nation to transition from an agriculture-based economy to one based on high-value-added manufacturing and services aided by computerization. Our standard of living–among the highest on earth–would not be possible without energy and the systems that have been developed to harness it.

 

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Searching for green jobs for the coalfields

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Evell Meade, left, of Kermit, W.Va., and Mitch Mitchell, right, of Charleston, W.Va., carry a solar panel into a doctor’s office Wednesday, Feb. 2, 2011 in Williamson, W.Va. A group devoted to creating alternative energy jobs in Central Appalachia is building a first for West Virginia’s southern coalfields region this week: a rooftop solar array, assembled by unemployed and underemployed coal miners and contractors. (AP Photo/Jeff Gentner)

Yesterday, the National Mining Association took its shot at imposing the view that the only way out of the nation’s economic mess is more coal and more coal-fired power plants. Of course, the NMA’s views ignore the reality of global warming and — for folks here in Central Appalachia — the very real declines in coal production expected by the end of this decade.

So I thought Coal Tattoo readers might be interested in checking out this guest post on Joe Romm’s Climate Progress blog, which outlines some very interesting points about the green economy, including:

There are already 2.7 million jobs across the clean economy. Clean energy is already proving to be larger job creation engine than the heavily subsidized fossil-fuels sector, putting Americans back to work in a lackluster economy.

— Across a range of clean energy projects, including renewable energy, transit, and energy efficiency, for every million dollars spent, 16.7 green jobs are created. That is over three times the 5.3 jobs per million dollars that are created from the same spending on fossil-fuel industries.

— The clean energy sector is growing at a rate of 8.3 percent. Solar thermal energy expanded by 18.4 percent annually from 2003 to 2010, along with solar photovoltaic power by 10.7 percent, and biofuels by 8.9 percent over the same period. Meanwhile, the U.S. wind energy industry saw 35 percent average annual growth over the past five years, accounting for 35 percent of new U.S. power capacity in that period, according to the 2010 U.S. Wind Industry Annual Market Report. As a whole, the clean energy sector’s average growth rate of 8.3 percent annually during this period was nearly double the growth rate of the overall economy during that time.

— Median wages are 13 percent higher in green energy careers than the economy average. Median salaries for green jobs are $46,343, or about $7,727 more than the median wages across the broader economy. As an added benefit, nearly half of these jobs employ workers with a less than a four-year college degree, which accounts for a full 70 percent of our workforce.

Now, you don’t hear many political leaders or business boosters in West Virginia talking about these things. They’re too busy smokestack chasing for a natural gas “cracker” plant, despite the continuing questions about whether the boom-and-bust of that sort of economy is the right way to go.

But groups like The Jobs Project, working with companies like Mountain View Solar, can make a difference, as we’ve reported here on Coal Tattoo before.

And energy efficiency efforts alone could create 60,000 new jobs in Appalachia over the next five years, according to a report prepared for the Appalachian Regional Commission (subscription required). We’ve also talked many times about the prospects for wind power in places like the Coal River Valley.

And what if we really started spending big money from the Abandoned Mine Lands program to clean up the coal industry’s old messes across the region? Think of the jobs that could create.

Not for nothing, but one report also projected that carbon capture and storage, or CCS, could create 74,000 U.S. jobs by 2030. But CCS isn’t going to happen as long as industry groups like the National Mining Association oppose efforts in Congress or by EPA to put a price on carbon dioxide emissions from coal-fired power plants.

As the nation waits to hear more details of President Obama’s new jobs plan, the National Mining Association sought today to inject its own agenda into the mix — issuing a news release criticizing the Sierra Club’s “Beyond Coal” campaign:

On the eve of the president’s address to the nation on job creation, a new report shows potentially 1.24 million jobs in 36 states have been destroyed by the Sierra Club’s “Beyond Coal” campaign aimed at stopping coal-based power plants. The finding, from an analysis released today by the National Mining Association (NMA), shows that while the Sierra Club boasts of stopping coal plant projects it is also destroying high-wage jobs for American workers in a struggling economy.

Aside from its news release, the NMA made public just two charts (see here and here) from the analysis, but said:

Applying coal plant employment data from the U.S. National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL) to the Sierra Club’s own claims of halted power plant construction, the analysis shows Sierra Club’s “Beyond Coal” campaign has targeted for destruction 116,872 permanent jobs and an additional 1.12 million construction jobs represented by the power plants they have prevented from being built. Examples include Illinois, where proposed power plants could have supported 126,612 total jobs there and in surrounding states, and Texas, where blocked power plant construction represented 122,065 total jobs and where potential shortages of electric power exists today.

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If coal is so good, then why is W.Va. so poor?

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A coal truck drives out of downtown Welch, W.Va., Wednesday, Feb. 9, 2011. (AP Photo/Jon C. Hancock)

As we wrap up another week of news from the coalfields of West Virginia, it’s worth looking back to see exactly who is asking the tough questions that need to be asked about this industry and its impacts on our state.

First, it takes a couple of members of Congress from California of all places to press Kevin Crutchfield, CEO of Alpha Natural Resources, about exactly how opposing unions fits into his company’s notion of “Running Right.”

West Virginia’s elected officials don’t seem to be interested in finding out what Crutchfield is doing to reform the Massey Energy safety practices that brought us the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster. Contrast the grilling of Crutchfield by Reps. George Miller and Lynn Woolsey to the attitude of Rep. Nick Rahall, who this week touted “the new ownership in Southern West Virginia” as the answer to any coal-related problems. Of course, my good friend Congressman Rahall, despite spending more than 30 years in Washington, hasn’t been able to figure out what agency should look into the recent scientific study that found his constituents who live near mountaintop removal mines face a greater risk of birth defects.

Then, we had a Boston native, billionaire business information mogul (and mayor New York City) coughing up $50 million of his personal wealth to help the Sierra Club fight construction of new coal-fired power plants, encourage the closure of polluting older plants and halt new mountaintop removal mining permits.

That move by Michael Bloomberg really touched a nerve with the powers that be in West Virginia’s coal industry and among some of its political allies.

The United Mine Workers issued a statement blasting Bloomberg. So did the National Mining Association. I couldn’t imagine that Sen. Joe Manchin was going to let it slide, and he didn’t disappoint, issuing a press release saying:

Coal not only built this country, but it built the skyscrapers of New York City, and without coal, the lights of that city would be dark and its economy would be devastated.

My buddy Matt Ballard at the Charleston Area Alliance (a local business booster group) must have gotten the memo on this, because I noticed him tweeting about it:

1/2 Really would have liked 2 have seen #Bloomberg donate $ to build CO2 technology to help make coal cleaner & advance the industry.

2/2 tech advances environmental science to help reduce #CO2. But instead he chose to not think about our domestic security. #Bloomberg

That was a general theme from the UMWA, the NMA and Sen. Manchin … that Mayor Bloomberg should have used his money to support development of  “clean coal” technology such as carbon capture and storage, or CCS.

OK, now let’s be clear again on something: American Electric Power dropped its work on one of the largest CCS test projects in history over in Mason County at its Mountaineer Plant. Why? Because federal and state officials have failed to make such technology necessary, by not passing any sort of binding limits on greenhouse gas emissions from power plants.

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West Virginia’s boom-and-bust energy economy

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Just in time to aid in the discussion of whether the Obama administration’s new guidance to limit mountaintop removal is a “job destroyer” — as the National Mining Association claims — the fine folks at the West Virginia Center for Budget & Policy have issued a report called “Booms and Busts: The Impact of West Virginia’s Energy Economy.

The report concludes:

In the past, West Virginia counties with a concentration in mining saw their economic performance dramatically decline after an energy development boom. Today, their economies are weaker than the rest of the state, and they are ill-positioned to compete and grow. It is uncertain whether today’s energy boom, led by natural gas extraction, will bring the prosperity to West Virginia that it promises. While the potential revenues from this boom seem to be an attractive source of economic growth for communities, history shows that natural resource booms inevitably lead to busts.

Among other things, the report points out:

During the energy development boom in the 1970s, West Virginia counties that focused heavily on mining enjoyed an economic surge. However, when the boom went bust in the 1980s, these mining counties were hit hard. They did worse than the state average on a range of factors, such as earnings and personal income growth, population growth, and employment. Today, these counties have higher poverty rates, lower median incomes, and worse health outcomes than the state average. Despite the rebounds in the energy sector in the 2000s, mining counties continue to struggle in comparison with the rest of West Virginia.

And:

… A boom in energy development, be it in coal mining or natural gas extraction, does not guarantee long-term economic growth and prosperity. Although communities can rely on energy development for economic growth in the short-term, the boom is unsustainable. If trends hold, the boom ultimately leads to a bust, followed by decades of underperformance.

Check it out here.

I was starting to think that maybe my good friend Sen. Joe Manchin was on vacation … I mean, hours and hours went by after the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced its final rules to combat cross-state air pollution, and Sen. Manchin hadn’t issued a news release yet.

So I was relieved when the release from Manchin’s overactive press office finally reached my inbox at nearly 7 p.m. last evening:

“The continued jobs-destroying overreach of the EPA is outrageous, and it’s incomprehensible that in these difficult economic times, the Administration would be so callous as to arbitrarily impose onerous rules that they know will cost countless American jobs and raise the daily costs of life for so many struggling families,” Senator Manchin said. “Once again, the EPA is taking aim at the coal industry, small businesses and the hardworking families who help power and build this nation.

“As I have said before, it’s time the EPA realizes that it cannot regulate what has not been legislated. Our government was designed so that elected representatives are in charge of making important decisions, not bureaucrats. That principle is even more true today when the American people see the consequences of the EPA making rules that affect our whole country and could hurt our fragile economy.”

Sen. Manchin never fails to disappoint … but come on now. Arbitrarily impose onerous rules? EPA can’t regulate what hasn’t been legislated? I wonder if Sen. Manchin doesn’t need to get some better staff work done, or if he’s just trying to misstate things in his zeal to show his allegiance to the coal industry.

Maybe Sen. Manchin disagrees with EPA’s rationale for this final rule. But he doesn’t offer one bit of evidence to support his allegation that it’s being arbitrarily imposed. EPA officials outlined their reasoning pretty clearly right here on the agency’s website. And trying to regulate what hasn’t been legislated? Seriously? Perhaps Sen. Manchin needs to go back and actually read the Clean Air Act.

Congress already gave EPA authority under the Clean Air Act’s “good neighbor” provision to to cut down interstate pollution that interferes with the attainment and maintenance of the national ambient air quality standards protecting public health. That’s in section 110(a)(2)(D)(i)(I) of the law, Senator. It’s one thing if Sen. Manchin wants to discuss or disagree with the actual way in which EPA is writing these rules, but he’s not doing that — he’s making incorrect statements about what authority EPA has and doesn’t have under laws already passed by Congress.

And that leads me to EPA, and that agency’s administrator, Lisa P. Jackson. While reading Sen. Manchin’s statement, I couldn’t help but think about the brief discussion I had with Administrator Jackson earlier yesterday during a press conference call about those EPA air pollution rules.

When EPA issued its initial press release, this part of it jumped out at me:

“No community should have to bear the burden of another community’s polluters, or be powerless to prevent air pollution that leads to asthma, heart attacks and other harmful illnesses. These Clean Air Act safeguards will help protect the health of millions of Americans and save lives by preventing smog and soot pollution from traveling hundreds of miles and contaminating the air they breathe,” said EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson. “By maximizing flexibility and leveraging existing technology, the Cross-State Air Pollution Rule will help ensure that American families aren’t suffering the consequences of pollution generated far from home, while allowing states to decide how best to decrease dangerous air pollution in the most cost effective way.”

Now wait a second, I thought … another community’s polluters“? Now, in this case,  that means at least partly all of the coal-fired power plants that line the Ohio River Valley … in places like Moundsville and New Haven in West Virginia. Missing from EPA’s statement was any recognition that those power plants aren’t there just so that the evil coal companies and utilities and arbitrarily send pollution over to big cities or suburbs on the East Coast. Those power plants are there to give those city folks electricity to run their iPhones and their air conditioners.

So it seemed to me that the folks enjoying the benefits of that “cheap electricity” from coal aren’t exactly powerless to do anything about the pollution that drifts their way from the coalfields. One thing they could do, for example, is to demand from that their political leaders push for other, cleaner forms of energy. Of course, some folks in those communities are doing that.

And Lisa P. Jackson is a smart, educated and very capable woman. So it surprised me when she repeated almost that same statement from EPA’s press release in her conference call with the media. I perhaps foolishly assumed that Administrator Jackson understood the connection between coal-fired power plant pollution and the “cheap electricity” she and her neighbors to our east take advantage of every day.

When it came my turn to ask a question, I decided to put this issue on the table, and see what she had to say. My question went something like this:

… As you know a lot of this pollution that this rule is aimed at is produced generating electricity and other goods and services for people who don’t live where the pollution is actually produced. And I’m wondering what your agency is doing to follow up on its promise that it would work with areas like the coalfields of Appalachian to provide alternative economies and alternative jobs to replace those that might be impacted by these sorts of rules.

I was amazed when Administrator Jackson responded by telling everybody on the call that I didn’t understand the issue at hand. She said:

Just to clarify for everybody … this is a rule that talks about upwind and downwind air pollution. So it’s actually sort of the opposite of what you asked, with respect to air, what we’re trying to do is ensure is that someone who is generating pollution upwind isn’t causing a place downwind to be out of attainment for ozone or SO2, and therefore making people unhealthy in a state that has no ability through their permit process to do anything about it.

She went on:

Now, there are other forms of local pollution, and since I know your issues are … you know, water pollution, or land pollution from waste disposal, those are being addressed separately.

Actually, Administrator Jackson, if your staff ever show you a copy of Coal Tattoo or of the Gazette, you’ll see we are concerned about quite a lot of issues about the coal industry … We’ve covered your agency’s efforts regarding greenhouse gas emissions and the recent proposal to for the first time regulate air toxics from coal-fired power plants. And we understand what you’re up to with the Cross-State Air Pollution Rule.

But it’s also clear from statements put out by folks like Sen. Manchin that your agency has a tough fight on its hands from the coal industry’s powerful political friends. And the folks who work at coal mines and power plants in places like Mingo and Mason counties in West Virginia have a right to straight talk from you and others in the Obama administration about how cleaning up coal pollution will affect their lives, including their jobs.

We’ve tried on this blog and in our newspaper to explain to readers in West Virginia the downside of coal, and all of the ways that EPA’s regulatory proposals might help to curb the negative impacts of this industry.

But it’s also true that your agency, on behalf of your boss, President Obama, made a very clear promise to the people of the coalfields two years ago:

Federal agencies will work in coordination with appropriate regional, state and local entities to help diversify and strengthen the Appalachian regional economy and promote the health and welfare of Appalachian communities.

Sure, that promise was made in the context of EPA’s announced crackdown on mountaintop removal permits. But it clearly is a commitment that must go beyond that, to helping communities — places that helped for generations to make our country strong — that are likely to see job losses from new air pollution, water pollution and greenhouse gas limits on coal. These aren’t separate issues. They’re all connected, and I’m sure that Lisa Jackson knows and understands that.

Administrator Jackson did go on to talk about the notion of “green jobs” a bit in response to my question:

In terms of what the administration is doing to try to help communities justly transition to cleaner forms of energy, I can just repeat the fact that this administration, this president has from the beginning said that there is great opportunity in greener, cleaner forms of energy. It’s better for our health, it’s better for our security, it’s better for our environment. He has shepherded and stewarded everything form the recovery act which had tens of billions of dollars in investment in cleaner form of energy, including a carbon capture and storage project right in West Virginia at, I think it’s an AEP plant, Mountaineer. So you know, whether it’s the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, whether it’s been work through our clean water programs to help communities finance and deal with water pollution, whether it’s working with labor unions and others, boilermakers and others who will get work when plants have to control their pollution and do it here in America. I think this administration has policies that make good on what we’ve all talked about, which is we should invest in our energy infrastructure just like we invest in our other infrastructure. It makes our country cleaner, it makes our economy stronger, and it makes our people healthier, and as you can see from these estimates, we’re not talking about small amounts of health improvements. We’re talking about saving lives, and literally changing people’s ability to enjoy the life they have.

But you’ll notice that the one West Virginia example she mentioned is one in which the work is meant to help keep the coal industry viable in a carbon-constrained world — not one aimed at helping transition folks who might lose coal-based jobs into something else with more of a future.

It’s been two years since the crackdown on mountaintop removal was announced. We’re half-way through the third year of President Obama’s term. Perhaps it’s time for someone like Lisa Jackson to visit West Virginia, and tell us more about exactly how the coalfields can join in the clean, green energy future she keeps talking about.

Mountaintop development?

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Last week, Erica Peterson over at West Virginia Public Broadcasting did an interesting story about a move by our friend Chris Hamilton at the West Virginia Coal Association to re-brand mountaintop removal mining as “mountaintop development.” According to Erica:

The coal industry has long pointed to its economic benefit in West Virginia — from mining jobs to development projects on former mine sites. Now, there’s talk of changing mining terminology to reflect some of this economic development.

Last month, Tyler Phipps, a junior at the University of Kentucky submitted a letter to the university’s student newspaper.  Phipps pointed to examples of development on former mine sites in Kentucky, and suggested the term “mountaintop development” might be a better way to describe the practice.

Phipps’ phrase appealed to many in the coal industry. Two days later, Chris Hamilton of the West Virginia Coal Association, emailed the story to coal groups, echoing the call of Massey Energy Vice President Mike Snelling that this might be a good way to re-brand the controversial practice.

“It just sort of struck a favorable note among those of us who are more directly involved with the coal industry and surface mining here in West Virginia,” Chris Hamilton said. “All around the state we have many examples today of industrial, commercial or recreational facilities that are on post-mine land sites, former mine sites, where there’s just a tremendous amount of economic development.”

It got me thinking about the discussion on Coal Tattoo a week earlier regarding a West Virginia Commerce Department press release that touted creation of 13,000 jobs on former surface mines in West Virginia. After bugging the Commerce Department, I finally got a copy of their list of projects involved in these jobs. I posted the list here, and also posted some notes the Commerce Department provided regarding some of the projects on the list.

I’ve spent a little bit of time looking at the list, and a few interesting things jumped out at me:

First, about 42 percent of the jobs — nearly 5,600 of them — are seasonal positions, part-time jobs, or temporary construction work.  There’s no mention of this in the Commerce Department press release.

Second, two thirds of the 7,739 full-time jobs are at sites nowhere near Southern West Virginia. They’re in Grant, Harrison, Hancock and Monongalia counties. More than a third of the full-time jobs are at one project — the FBI Center near Clarksburg.

Also interesting were a couple of the notes at the end of the actual list of projects …  For example:

This includes sites that have had prior mining activity. This includes sites with a designated post-mine land use in the permit, properties mined prior to 1977 and projects where a permit was not needed due to incidental coal.

So, we’re not at all talking exclusively about large mountaintop removal sites where post-mining development was made possible by provisions of the 1977 Surface Mining Act that required such development for sites with variances to the “approximate original contour” reclamation standard.

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Gazette photo by Chip Ellis

Does the coal industry help or hurt West Virginia’s state government budget?

The conventional wisdom is that coal keeps the state running, and is a — if not the — major driver behind the state budget (not the mention the overall state economy). That’s the argument consistently put forth for years by the industry, its friends in political office, and by various economists working for the mining lobby.

But a new, must-read report from the folks at Downstream Strategies and the West Virginia Center for Budget and Policy raises major new questions about that bit of conventional wisdom.  According to the report:

While every job and every dollar of revenue generated by the coal industry provides an economic benefit for the state of West Virginia and the counties where the coal is produced, the net impact of the West Virginia coal industry, when taking all revenues and expenditures into account, amounted to a net cost to the state of $97.5 million in Fiscal Year 2009.

That’s right — a net cost to the state of $97.5 million.

For example:

The coal industry in 2009 paid $307.3 million in severance taxes, corporate net income tax, business franchise tax and other taxes. But, the state spends $113.7 million to support units of government that regulate mining and for the repair of the state’s coal haul roads. So, the report concludes that industry in this respect provided a net benefit to the state budget of about $193.6 million.

Or:

The state provides  variety of tax credits and subsidies that amounted to nearly $174 million in 2009 — all of which show up as “expenditures,” or costs to the state budget of the coal industry.

(There’s a handy chart of all of the revenues and expenditures at the end of the Executive Summary of the report).

The report, written by Rory McIlmoil and Evan Hansen of Downstream Strategies and Ted Boettner and Paul Miller of the West Virginia Center for Budget and Policy, is similar to the previous analysis done on coal’s impact on the Kentucky state budget by the Mountain Association for Community Economic Development. It was being released today along with a similar report on coal’s impacts on the Tennessee state budget.  Both reports are available online here.

Broken down simply, the West Virginia report tries to account for all of coal’s contributions to the state budget and compare those contributions to the expenditures of state money made necessary by the coal industry. This is quite different from what is normally done in reports like the West Virginia Coal Association project released earlier this year, which promoted coal’s benefits but ignored any costs.

The report makes one thing clear from the start:

Coal plays a significant role in West Virginia’s economy, contributing hundreds of millions of dollars in state and local revenue and providing well-paying jobs to tens of thousands of West Virginians.

But:

… the size of the coal economy, while substantial, is not as considerable as previous accounts suggest. Further, such accounts have only presented coal’s benefits; our estimates provide an initial aacounting of both benefits and costs.

As estimated in this report, the industry itself — including direct and indirect employers — actually costs West Virginia state taxpayers more than it provides.

Such an accounting is important, for projected declines in production, should they prove accurate, will further diminish coal’s contribution to state revenues, while the negative impacts resulting from coal industry activity will result in ongoing costs to the state and its citizens.

Today’s release of the West Virginia and Kentucky reports is being promoted by the Sierra Club, and the West Virginia report was partly funded by the Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Council (other contributors are listed in the acknowledgments section). And the authors previously issued another Coal Tattoo must read, The Decline of Central Appalachian Coal and the Need for Economic Diversification.

Among the more interesting parts of the report concerns the “legacy costs” of the coal industry, those for long-term acid mine drainage pollution, damaged roads and bridges and injured or sick workers. These items were actually not considered in the report’s accounting, but the authors make clear how important they are:

Overall, the legacy costs associated with past and future coal industry activity must be considered in examining the total impact on the state. External costs resulting from coal industry activity, including the costs to human health, for repairing damage to personal property, and in the value of lost economic opportunities resulting from the loss of clean water and timber resources, for instance, were not considered in this report. However, they all represent real costs to society, and should be considered in any full accounting of the benefits and costs of the coal industry.

Among other things, the authors recommend:

— Maintaining the revenues currently generated by the workers’ compensation coal tax and creating a “Permanent Diversification Fund” that would support short- and long-term economic development goals and insure against the potential for future declines in coal-related revenues.

— Increasing the coal severance tax rate and distribute the additional funds to coal-producing counties.

— Increase the per-ton fee on coal haul trucks.

The report concludes:

As mining declines in the future, the potential loss of state revenues will make it even more difficult to cover the annual and legacy costs of coal. Therefore, state policy related to energy and economic development — to the extent that it supports the coal industry — should be reconsidered, and new policies should be enacted that reflect the recognition of these realities.


Obama DOL: Helping W.Va. workers find ‘green jobs’

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Yesterday’s release of the report detailing the expected decline of Central Appalachia’s coal production has generated continued discussion here on Coal Tattoo about the subject of a regional economic transition that would involve more “green jobs.”

Well, today we got at least a little bit of an answer from the Obama administration, in the form of a $6 million grant to the state’s Workforce West Virginia program to help about 1,600 West Virginians find employment in environmentally-friendly jobs.

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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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MTR economics: Limits won’t be the end of the world

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As the Obama administration works out the kinks of its proposal to take “unprecedented steps” to reduce the environmental impacts of mountaintop removal, coal industry supporters are pulling out all of their old arguments: Limits on mining will turn off the lights and send the regional — some even argue national — economy plummeting even further into recession.

But now, a newly released report commissioned by the Sierra Club has some important things to say about what ending mountaintop removal would do to the nation’s energy supply and the region’s economy.

In short, the report dispels most of the myths: The nation can end mountaintop removal without sacrificing energy and jobs, and — in the long run — doing so might actually improve economies in the Appalachian coalfields.

As the report concludes:

There is no evidence that eliminating surface-mining of Central Appalachian coal will cause the lights to go out or electricity prices to significantly increase in the east. In fact:

— the demand for coal for electricity generation is likely to decrease in the
short and long run, and

there are economically attractive alternatives to burning Appalachian
mountain top/valley fill mined coal for electricity supply.

Mary Anne Hitt, deputy director of the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign, said:

This new report highlights the benefits for Appalachia that would result from ending mountaintop removal mining and transitioning to clean energy jobs. We can have affordable electricity without mountaintop removal, and we can protect our communities, streams, forests and mountains at the same time.

The new report was prepared for the Sierra Club by the consulting firm Synapse Energy Economics Inc. It’s dated Aug. 25, 2009, but was only made public today, perhaps to coincide with the start of public hearings on one of the Obama administration proposals to more closely scrutinize mountaintop removal permits. I’ve posted a copy of the report here.

These findings are important, but alone they are not yet a slam-dunk for opponents of mountaintop removal … check out this conclusion, for example:

The net effect of restrictions on mountaintop removal on the Central Appalachian economy is uncertain, but a growing body of evidence suggests that the region’s dependence on coal for jobs has not proved a boon. Economic diversification in Central Appalachia would promote a healthier, more stable economy. Research continues to shed more light on the economic and health costs of coal mining.

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One way to create green jobs in the coalfields

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Derek Springston, a volunteer with Friends of Deckers Creek, helps to monitor water quality near an old mine at Richard. Iron from the mine drainage colors the water and bank orange. When it settles in the streambed, it smothers habitat for aquatic insects, which would provide food for fish.  Courtesy photo.

Your Sunday Gazette-Mail’s Perspectives page featured a commentary by Evan Hansen of Downstream Strategies and Sarah Veselka of Friends of Deckers Creek about their efforts to convince state officials to spend some Abandoned Mine Lands program money to finish the cleanup of Deckers Creek in Morgantown.

I’ve been a little skeptical of such projects being moved to the top of the stack of AML projects in the  Appalachian coalfields. Why? Sure, it sounds like a win-win that would clean up an environmental problems and help spur tourism as part of a more diverse economy for that part of West Virginia.

But when I wrote Abandoned Promises, a series on the AML program  five years ago, among the things I learned and reported about was the effort by some states — primarily Pennsylvania at the time — to divert huge amounts of federal mine cleanup money to projects like this, which are lower down on the priority list set by Congress.

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