Coal Tattoo

‘One of the good coal operators’

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Jim Justice


Just a few hours before the second and final debate between gubernatorial candidates Jim Justice and Bill Cole — and in the wake of last week’s devastating report about Justice by NPR — the United Mine Workers union is stepping up to defend their candidate. Here’s UMWA President Cecil Roberts in what the union says is a “reality check” on which candidate is best for mine safety:

I read the NPR story regarding the mine safety fines incurred by mines operated by companies that Jim Justice owns. Let me be clear: I believe his company needs to pay any fines it has incurred. My understanding is that those fines are, in fact, being paid right now.

But if we want to talk about which candidate for West Virginia Governor cares more about the health and safety of working miners, let’s make sure the facts are clear. Jim Justice has never questioned the need for mine safety laws and regulations.

The prepared statement from President Roberts went on:

Bill Cole hasn’t just questioned whether we need safety laws for West Virginia miners, he played a key part in slashing the state’s mine safety and health law in 2015. First, the law Bill Cole pushed through the State Senate abolished a commission that was charged with making sure miners weren’t breathing harmful diesel exhaust emissions while working underground.

Bill ColeSecond, Bill Cole agreed with those who thought it was not a problem for miners to have to carry an injured miner 1,500 feet to get to mechanized transportation and then be brought outside for medical treatment. Anyone who has ever walked underground over broken rock and lumps of coal knows how difficult that is at the best of times. Trying to do that over the equivalent of five football fields while rushing to get an injured co-worker to safety is the last thing miners need to be doing.

And third, Bill Cole supported putting miners’ lives in danger by allowing companies to move large equipment around in a mine and putting that equipment between working miners and escape routes if something bad happens. This law was put into place back in the 1970s when miners were killed as a result of this practice. We should never allow something to happen underground that we know has already lead to miners’ deaths. But Bill Cole did.

The UMWA is talking about the legislation described in this story, and which a top union official and state legislator criticized in this op-ed piece, saying:

This extreme legislation loosens coal mining safety regulations to the benefit of big corporations without any regard for worker safety.

Oddly, the UMWA didn’t mention in its statement today that the bill in question was eventually signed by Democratic Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, over the union’s objections.

Also not mentioned is what happened the following legislative session, earlier this year, when the UMWA actually went along with another coal lobby bill that weakened mine safety protections. That bill also passed, and was signed by Gov. Tomblin. Union officials said they had little choice but to try to reach that compromise bill, fearing the industry — and a Republican controlled Legislature with Cole as Senate President — easily had the votes to pass something worse.

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Jim Justice


Well, our friend Howard Berkes at NPR (along with the good folks at West Virginia Public Broadcasting and the Ohio Valley ReSource) have put together the pieces of the puzzle. Their bombshell this morning on Democratic gubernatorial nominee Jim Justice reports:

… Justice’s mining companies still fail to pay millions of dollars in mine safety penalties two years after an earlier investigation documented the same behavior. Our analysis of federal data shows that Justice is now the nation’s top mine safety delinquent.

His mining companies owe $15 million in six states, including property and minerals taxes, state coal severance and withholding taxes, and federal income, excise and unemployment taxes, as well as mine safety penalties, according to county, state and federal records.

The story continues:

In the past 16 months, while fines and taxes went unpaid, Justice personally contributed nearly $2.9 million in interest-free loans and in-kind contributions to his gubernatorial campaign, according to state campaign finance reports.

Grant Herring, a spokesman for the Justice gubernatorial campaign, said Justice “won’t be doing an interview,” despite multiple requests after NPR provided details of our investigation.

Importantly, the investigation also reports:

Delinquent Justice mines also continue to have worse-than-average safety records, according to NPR’s analysis of MSHA injury and violations data. Our analysis shows that injury rates (for injuries forcing time away from work) are twice the national average and violations rates more than four times the national rate during the years the Justice mines failed to pay penalties.

The Justice fines concern Celeste Monforton, a former MSHA official, mine disaster investigator and lecturer on workplace safety at George Washington University and Texas State University.

“I don’t think we should forget that the reason that he has those penalties is because there were violations and hazards in his coal mining operations,” says Monforton.

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Blankenship’s letter from a Taft, California, jail

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Gazette-Mail file photo by Chip Ellis

Well, I guess we all knew that something like this was coming sooner or later. Don Blankenship has seldom been one to keep quiet; well, except for that time he refused to answer questions from investigators after the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster … or that time he declined to take the stand in his own defense at his federal court criminal trial.

But Kris Maher over at the Wall Street Journal had the story this morning:

Former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship, who is serving a one-year sentence in federal prison for violating mine safety laws, is issuing a highly unusual personal defense this week, using a 67-page booklet to declare that he is an “American Political Prisoner.”

“The story is a little complex, and telling it from prison without a computer and without much documentation has not been easy,” Mr. Blankenship wrote. “But it is a story that Americans need to know.”

And indeed, there is a press release, in the form of this blog post — dateline “Taft, California,” where Blankenship is serving his prison sentence, as well as a .pdf file of Blankenship’s booklet now available through his website. I’ve downloaded a copy of the booklet and posted it here for safekeeping. Blankenship says he’s going to send the booklet to 250,000 people — he doesn’t say who — and explains his reasons for doing so:

This booklet is the right thing to do. It is the right thing to do because all Americans deserve a fair trial, and not one like I had. It is right to do this booklet because coal miner safety is more import-ant than political correctness. Lies about accidents and improper prosecutions are serious matters, as they prevent worker safety improvements and deprive people of their basic human rights.

We’ve seen this movie — literally — before. For example, the booklet runs through Blankenship’s theory that the Upper Big Branch disaster was caused not by poor safety practices at Massey under his watch, but by an uncontrollable flood of natural gas into the underground mine. Investigations by the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration, the Governors Independent Investigation Panel (the McAteer team), the state Office of Miners Health, Safety and Training, and the United Mine Workers of America all reached conclusions contrary to Blankenship’s theory.

The other thing that Blankenship goes off about is his belief that the media has ignored (covered up, I think is his term) allegations about MSHA’s role in what happened at UBB. It’s hard to buy into his part of his theory, given that his major concerns about MSHA — inaction about potential methane leaks from the look of UBB, perhaps poorly planned demands for changes in the mine’s ventilation system, and the potential that not all records about MSHA’s involvement at UBB have been made public — were all covered fairly extensively by Blankenship’s favorite news outlet.

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Coming clean about the Clean Power Plan

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FILE - In this July 1, 2013, file photo, smoke rises from the Colstrip Steam Electric Station, a coal burning power plant in Colstrip, Mont. Most Americans are willing to pay a little more each month to fight global warming, but only a tiny bit, according to a new poll. Still environmental policy experts hail that as a hopeful sign. Seventy-one percent of the American public want the federal government to do something about global warming, including six percent of the people who think the government should act even though they are not sure that climate change is happening, according to a poll conducted by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research and the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago. (AP Photo/Matthew Brown, File)


Tomorrow is a big day for coal and energy issues, what with the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia set to hear oral argument in the case trying to stop the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan.

Lots of eyes in West Virginia will be watching, and we’ve covered the implications of this issue before (see here, here and here).

There’s a bunch of stories out there nationally that provide various sorts of previews of tomorrow argument.

The New York Times, for example, takes this angle:

The pitched battle over President Obama’s signatureclimate change policy, which is moving to the courts this week, carries considerable political, economic and historical stakes. Yet its legal fate, widely expected to be ultimately decided by the Supreme Court, could rest on a clerical error in an obscure provision of a 26-year-old law.

That error, which left conflicting amendments on power plant regulation in the Clean Air Act, will be a major focus of oral arguments by opponents of Mr. Obama’s initiative when the case is heard on Tuesday in the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.

The initiative, known as the Clean Power Plan, which Mr. Obama sees as at the heart of his climate change legacy, gave the United States critical leverage to broker the landmark 2015 Paris climate change accord. If the plan is struck down, the United States, the world’s largest carbon polluter over the centuries, will lose its main tool to cut greenhouse gas emissions. If it is upheld, it will transform the nation’s electricity system, closing hundreds of coal-fired power plants and setting in motion a wholesale shift to wind, solar and nuclear power, as well as to improved electric transmission systems.

And here’s The Washington Post:

President Obama’s signature effort to combat global warming will be in the hands of federal judges this week, as an appeals court in Washington weighs the legality of the administration’s plan to force sharp cuts in power plants’ carbon emissions and push the nation toward cleaner energy sources.

Even after a marathon hearing Tuesday, the legal questions about the Clean Power Plan are almost certain to remain unresolved when Obama leaves office. But the outcome of the case ultimately could shape the president’s environmental legacy and influence how millions of Americans get their electricity.

“It’s the big kahuna,” said David Doniger, a senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council, which backs the proposal.

The sprawling, unpredictable legal battle — which has attracted attention from the Supreme Court — pits the nation’s leading environmental groups, climate scientists and even tech giants such as Apple against more than two dozen states, industry groups and conservative lawmakers.

There are many others, including pieces from EnergyWire, The Wall Street Journal, and The Daily Caller.

Locally, the Daily Mail editorial page had an op-ed from West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, who is among those challenging the EPA rule, and West Virginia Public Broadcasting had a brief preview that included these comments from the AG:

We know that over the last number of years that the regulatory onslaught has play a part in the onslaught of the loss of coal jobs. There are other factors, I would concede, but the regulatory onslaught has been a factor.

It was nice to see AG Morrisey acknowledge the “other factors” that have led to coal’s decline, something we’ve certainly tried to convince public officials to face up to over these last few years (see here, here and here, for example). As with election stories these days, it’s often easy for public officials — and voters — to get away with spouting the coal industry line without ever being confronted by journalists with facts about coal’s decline and the reality of the challenges faced by coalfield communities — even if the AG and his allies manage to win the day in court.

Friday roundup, Aug. 26, 2016

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In this Aug. 10, 2016 photo, Vincent Montant, director of facilities for Allegany Public Schools, shows the long-handed shovel that is used to remove coal ash from the furnace at Braddock Middle School in Cumberland, Md. are exhibited for inspection as the academic year approaches. (Michael A. Sawyers/Cumberland Times-News via AP) WHAG-TV OUT; MANDATORY CREDIT


In this Aug. 10, 2016 photo, Vincent Montant, director of facilities for Allegany Public Schools, shows the long-handed shovel that is used to remove coal ash from the furnace at Braddock Middle School in Cumberland, Md. are exhibited for inspection as the academic year approaches. (Michael A. Sawyers/Cumberland Times-News via AP)

Another week, and another New York Times story that oversimplifies the current situation in the nation’s coalfields … This time, it was a story headlined “Alienated and Angry, Coal Miners See Donald Trump as Their Only Choice.” It started this way:

Deep in the belly of an Appalachian mountain, a powerful machine bored into the earth, its whirring teeth clawing out a stream of glistening coal. Men followed inside the Maple Eagle No. 1 mine, their torches cutting through the dank air. One guided the machine with a PlayStation-like controller; others bolted supports in the freshly cut roof.

They were angry. The coal industry that made West Virginia prosperous has been devastated. Every day, it seemed, another mine laid off workers or closed entirely. Friends were forfeiting their cars, homes and futures.

For these men, this season’s presidential campaign boils down to a single choice. “I’m for Trump,” said Dwayne Riston, 27, his face smeared in dust. “Way I see it, if he wins, we might at least stand a chance of surviving.”

Few places in America offer such a simple electoral calculus as the rolling, tree-studded hills of West Virginia.

Yeah, OK. Few places are as often pigeonholed and depicted as devoid of any nuance — through a simple journalistic calculus without any effort at all at context — than the coalfields of West Virginia when the big-time, out-of-state political correspondents parachute in to enlighten the world. I have to check again to make sure Times reporter

Sure, the miners are angry. Yes, many of them see voting for Donald Trump as their only hope. But does anyone really believe that most of this story wasn’t already written in the correspondent’s head before he got off the plane or hopped in a rental car?

These stories are hard for the national media to resist, and a look at any of the projections for Trump’s sure victory in West Virginia explains part of the reason for that (see here or here). My point isn’t that Trump is not going to win here. That seems obvious.

Last week, another hotshot Times correspondent focused on “Beyond Coal” issues in Appalachia (mostly Kentucky) without mentioning the fact that the Obama administration was trying to throw billions of dollars at the region’s economic problems. This time, the Times makes hardly a mention of any of the local efforts at finding a path forward, with this:

Yet the people of Mingo County have forged their own brand of resilience, one born of the tight-knit rural values that draw embattled citizens together. For some, that means planning for a better future: Dr. Dino Beckett, a local physician, has spearheaded initiatives to grow healthy food locally and reduce diabetes. For others, it means lifting a defiant finger to the outside world.

For anyone who knows Dr. Beckett, that line makes it clear that the Times reporter didn’t spend enough time in the area (or with Google, for that matter), to understand that people are far more complex than either on the one hand spearheading forward-looking initiatives or, on the other hand, “lifting a defiant finger to the outside world.” West Virginians can both be trying to improve local public health and be tangled up with characters like jailed former Massey CEO Donald Blankenship (some readers may recall that the Hillary Clinton was likewise confused by finding actual nuance in Mingo County).

Then there was this line:

With salaries starting at $70,000 a year, a job in the mines was long considered the local jackpot. Mingo County’s breathtaking valleys and hollers — narrow creeks bordered by high hills — are lined with spacious homes, swimming pools and gleaming vehicles. Now, there is a palpable fear that the good life is gone, perhaps for good.

The local jackpot? That makes it sound like working in a coal mine isn’t incredibly hard work, not to mention incredibly dangerous work. This would have been a nice place for the Times reporter to make some mention at all of the downsides of the coal industry — things like black lung disease, mine explosions, water pollution … I could go on. Why is it that the Times is unable to show its readers that when one travels West Virginia, one finds incredible beauty and then, just around the bend, a moonscape or an orange stream? Why must we be “the other” place, a one-dimensional hollow that these “journalists” can’t seem to understand and are certain their cosmopolitan readers won’t get either.

More importantly, this story — like last week’s Times piece — chooses to make no effort at all to explain the complex reasons behind the decline in our region’s coal market. All this latest story gave us was this:

Political fury in Mingo County focuses squarely on the Environmental Protection Agency and President Obama, who is seen as having started a “war on coal.”

Why is it considered good journalism to cite all this “political fury” without providing any context to explain what’s really going on? It’s not like the Times doesn’t know about the context — they’ve published stuff about this very recently (see here and here).  It’s as if the Times believes politics and facts really should be separate things — and that political journalism shouldn’t involve ever providing context, especially if that context undermines the narrative or what voters are saying. There’s nothing wrong with giving the angry miners a voice. But that’s only part of the story.

Reporting on the fury, without reporting on the context — the constant drumbeat of campaign and issue ads that have for eight years now promoted the one-dimensional view of what’s hurting coal — simply helps to ensure that this same fury continues, and that no one understands what’s really going on.

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Really, Hoppy? ‘Blood money’?

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And to think I was bothered when Sens. Manchin and Capito just had to take a swipe at President Obama’s environmental regulations on the day when the administration made good on a promise to pump some money into helping coalfield communities figure out what comes next.

hoppyBut wow. Hoppy Kercheval’s “commentary” today is really something. Maybe he should have waited for tomorrow’s traditional “steam release” segment to go on this rant about yesterday’s announcement of nearly $40 million in federal grants to coalfield communities and groups. Here’s what he wrote, under the headline, “Obama’s handout to coal country“:

… There is also a “blood money” feel to it, a payoff from the Obama administration to ease consciences over the damage done, handouts spread throughout the region to tamp down the misery index the White House helped create.

Blood money? Wonder why he put it in quotes? So he can pretend it wasn’t really him saying it? Who knows with Hoppy. He long ago went so round the bend about coal issues, climate change and President Obama that it’s hard to know whether even he believes what he says and writes.

You have to start with the headline, and Hoppy’s use of the word “handout.” It’s surely not by accident that Hoppy’s playing into the false notion that the administration’s Power Plus Plan is some sort of welfare — checks written to unemployed miners, rather than seed money to help local communities find ways to diversify their economies and communities for long-term success.

Then there’s Hoppy’s single-minded insistence that what’s happening in the coalfields is caused almost exclusively by government regulations. To try to avoid being accused of ignoring the facts, Hoppy makes a brief feint toward acknowledging the role of cheap natural gas. But in the end, Hoppy doesn’t tell the truth on these issues, because he ignores the long-standing warnings that someday the good coal was going to run out, that even a defeat of EPA wouldn’t save the Southern West Virginia mining industry, and that global warming is a major threat to human society — and a significant contributor to disasters like the June floods.

Not for nothing, but it’s worth pointing out here that while Hoppy crusades in favor of returning coal to its supposed heyday, Hoppy hasn’t exactly focused his attention over the years on the many downsides of our state’s relationship with coal:  Slurry dam disasters, mine explosion disasters, black lung disasters … or on the very real legacy liabilities that Hoppy’s as-few-regulations-as-possible philosophy have allowed to now be foisted on our state, like underfunded coal miner pension plans and giant messes left behind when the mountaintop removal is done.

Maybe the best thing to say about this from Hoppy is that at least he’s consistent — consistent at getting this story wrong, obfuscating the truth and just carrying the water of a powerful industry whose warts he likes to ignore. But then again, he’s not really consistent.


It wasn’t so long ago that Hoppy was complaining when the Obama administration didn’t give West Virginia some of this “blood money.” In January, his column was headlined, “WV thumped by Obama green agenda yet again,” and objected when the federal government rejected the state’s request for $140 million from a program meant to help communities become more resilient to the kinds of natural disasters — floods, hurricanes, etc., — expected to become more likely and more damaging because of climate change. Hoppy explained:

The proposal was called “Adjust, Adapt and Advance,” and it included detailed plans for water, sewer and infrastructure improvements, land use planning that lowered risks to the environment, and housing, school and business developments on old surface mine sites that would be out of the flood plain.

So yeah, it’s “blood money.” But if Hoppy can use the rejection of a state grant for some more of that unseemly stuff to attack the “Obama green agenda,” then logic and reason and any sort of consistency go out the window.

What Hoppy didn’t make clear was that most of the money the state requested  in that earlier application — $110 million of it — was to be used for the last part of that, the development of old surface mine sites.

Hoppy writes that the “irony is self-evident” in President Obama providing money to help struggling coal communities. Really, though, Hoppy is a bit irony impaired on all of this. What’s really ironic is the whole idea that now that the mountains have been blown up, the streams polluted, and the riches of the coal hauled away to some other place, we have to invest public resources to make those flattened mountains into someplace businesses might locate, schools might be built, and families might be able to live.

I don’t know about you, but I remember the constant jingoism from coal supporters that mountaintop removal was good because when the mining companies were done there would be something valuable left over. And what’s really ironic is that the whole reason we don’t have more development on former mountaintop removal sites is that the anti-regulatory forces championed by Hoppy kept the portions of the federal surface mining act that required such development from being properly enforced.

And finally, really, what’s ironic is that the mess West Virginia is in now is largely of our own making. It’s a creature of our relationship with coal, our reliance on one industry, and our refusal to heed decades of warnings that we needed to branch out and get ready for this day. And commentators like Hoppy want to make it so that the Obama administration is damned if they don’t help us out of this hole, but also damned if they do help us out of it.



There’s an interesting op-ed in The New York Times today by civil rights lawyer and author Chase Madar about the use of criminal prosecutions in major public safety disasters. It mentions the Upper Big Branch Mine explosion, and the successful prosecution of former Massey CEO Don Blankenship:

The latest criminal charges of public officials in the contamination of the Flint, Mich., water supply seem righteous. After so much government ineptitude with such hideous consequences — tens of thousands of Flint residents poisoned; elevated blood lead levels in nearly 5 percent of the city’s children, many with possibly irreversible brain damage — surely these criminal charges will bring, at long last, justice for Flint.

Not really. Though these sorts of charges fulfill an emotional need for retribution and are of great benefit to district attorneys on the make, they are seldom more than a mediagenic booby prize. Prosecutorial responses fill the void left when health and safety regulations succumb to corporate and political pressure.

Take the collapse at the Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia that killed 29 miners in 2010. Flouting safety regulations was an integral part of the corporate culture of the mine’s owner, Massey Energy, and last year its chief executive, Donald L. Blankenship, was convicted of a misdemeanor carrying a one-year sentence. Although some portrayed this as a blow for social justice, it’s difficult to see how it had much impact on mine safety.

Far more significant was the West Virginia Legislature’s passage last year of the Creating Coal Jobs and Safety Act, the first statutory loosening of mine safety standards in state history. While on its deregulatory binge last year, the state almost entirely rolled back aboveground chemical-tank safety standards enacted in response to the Elk River contamination disaster of 2014 – which made the water of 300,000 people undrinkable.

The general point is that criminal prosecutions won’t stop mine disasters, or water pollution, or food contamination — and that the media give far too much attention to criminal trials in these incidents, at the expense of coverage of the many failings of our civil and administrative regulatory systems that are supposed to protect the public. Attorney Madar opines:

Our prosecutorial response tends to be reactive. Volkswagen will pay at least $15 billion for cheating on emissions tests on its diesel vehicles, and may face criminal charges. The tiny research center that caught the discrepancy is now facing cuts to its $1.5 million annual budget.

A well-enforced regulatory regime lacks the TV-movie narrative arc of a criminal trial. But none of these crimes could have been committed if the government had been doing its job properly.

OK. Now one glaring problem with this whole line of thinking is that, while telling readers that these prosecutions are little more than a “mediagenic booby prize”  that we mere news reporters fall for every time, Attorney Madar seems to be getting his information about the glaring holes in regulatory systems that aren’t explained to the public from — that’s right, the mainstream media.

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Friday roundup, Aug. 19, 2016

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Secret Service agents stand post as Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks during a coal mining roundtable at Fitzgerald Peterbilt, Wednesday, Aug. 10, 2016, in Glade Spring, Va. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)


Secret Service agents stand post as Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks during a coal mining roundtable at Fitzgerald Peterbilt, Wednesday, Aug. 10, 2016, in Glade Spring, Va. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

This week, I’m going to try to get back into the habit of doing a post every Friday that tries to provide a quick look at a few coal-related news stories from around the Internet that I found interesting.

First off this week is the much-shared New York Times piece, “Beyond Coal: Imagining Appalachia’s Future.” Written by Times Mid-Atlantic Bureau Chief Sheryl Stolberg, the piece starts out like this:

Here in the heart of central Appalachian coal country, an economic experiment is underway inside an airy renovated Coca-Cola bottling plant. Most days, Michael Harrison, a former mine electrician and “buggy man” who once drove trucks 700 feet underground, can be found hunched over a silver laptop, designing websites for clients like the Pikeville tourism board.

Mr. Harrison, 36, is one of 10 former mine workers employed at BitSource, an internet start-up founded by two Pikeville businessmen determined to prove a point: that with training and encouragement, Kentucky miners can learn to code.

“We told them, ‘Quit thinking of yourselves as unemployed coal workers; you’re technology workers,’” said Rusty Justice, a founder of BitSource. He called his pep talks “reimagination training.”

Times Appalachia coverAnd then there’s what we like to call nut graphs:

Nearly 13,000 coal jobs — and countless more in related industries — have disappeared in Kentucky since President Obama took office; coal employment is at its lowest level since 1898. In Washington, Democrats and Republicans remain locked in a feud over whether Mr. Obama’s aggressive environmental regulations amount to a “war on coal.” On the presidential campaign trail, Donald J. Trump is vowing to “put our miners back to work.”

But across central Appalachia, and especially here in eastern Kentucky, elected officials, business leaders, environmentalists and community advocates are looking beyond politics to wrestle with a question essential to the region’s survival: What comes after coal?

I guess it’s a decent enough story, as far as it goes. And it’s certainly good to see many of the grassroots people who are working hard on these issues portrayed for the huge audience that will see a big Times feature like this.

Giving the Times a break, I’m not even going to go into the fact that the story doesn’t bother to point out the other factors — besides environmental regulations — that are killing the Appalachian coal industry. But I couldn’t help thinking that one thing that the story desperately needed to point out was that the Obama administration — which the story went to pains to note is constantly criticized in the region — is trying hard to help these grassroots people get to work diversifying the Appalachian coalfield economy. Even more importantly, this story absolutely needed to make note — given the political situation it chose to include very high up in the narrative — that there is bipartisan support for the major pieces of President Obama’s plan that would protect coal miner pensions and increase spending on abandoned mine cleanups, two areas of legacy liabilities that must be addressed for the region to move forward.

And if you’re wondering why the story focused more on Kentucky, don’t forget that statewide political leaders there made diversifying the coalfield economy a major issue, with the SOAR initiative.

Here in West Virginia, Sen. Jeff Kessler tried to get a similar program moving. But Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin was slow to step up, and his main project is trying to find some way to make use of the mountaintop removal-ravaged Hobet site along the Boone-Lincoln county line — an effort that faces huge challenges that were clear from the start and have been made more clear by Andy Brown’s reporting for the Gazette-Mail (see here and here).

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Bob Murray: MSHA inspections ‘total harassment’

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Yesterday, Hoppy Kercheval had Murray Energy CEO Bob Murray on the MetroNews show “Talkline,” ostensibly to talk about the growing financial challenges faced by Murray Energy and the vote coming up on Friday by United Mine Workers of America members on a second contract proposal with Murray.

Murray said, as he has before, that a new contract to replace the UMWA deal that expires at the end of the year, is essential to his company’s survival. The MetroNews summary of his comments went like this:

“The United Mine Workers turned it down last time. It is essential, the approval of it, to complete our four step program to avoid financial default in October,” Murray said.

Murray announced in July that 4,400 employees, 80 percent of his workforce, could lose their jobs. WARN notices were sent out.

But things veered away from that pretty quickly into another attack on the Obama administration and its efforts to better regulate coal mining.  Here’s Murray, responding to Hoppy’s softball questions:

I’ve worked night and day for 29 years building this company and creating these jobs only to have them destroyed by Barack Obama and his excessive regulations. Those regulations are coming out against coal, against the utilization of coal as well as the mining of coal faster than we can read them.

Murray went on:

Talk about harassment. In the first two days of this month, our mines had 89 federal inspectors from the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration run by former UMWA safety man Joe Main. Eight-nine inspectors.

That means I had to take 89 management people off of inspecting the mines, off of doing safety training. It has nothing to do with safety. It is total harassment. Eighty-nine inspectors for 15 mines … All of which are cut back in production because they keep hiring these inspectors. They have nowhere to put them. It’s all harassment. It works against safety. There are so many ways that this federal government, under Obama, which Hilary Clinton has said she will continue trying to drive the coal mines out of business. It has nothing to do with safety. It has to do with eliminating underground coal mining.

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Trump worries coal-mine owners are starving

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Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump puts on a miners hard hat during a rally in Charleston, W.Va., Thursday, May 5, 2016. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)


A lot of the news out of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign has been rightly focused on his comments attacking the parents of a Muslim American soldier killed by a suicide bomber in Iraq, and then on his remarks Monday night in which he called Hillary Clinton “the devil.”

But Trump is still talking about coal mining, and here’s what The Hill reported he said Monday during a campaign stop in Pennsylvania:

“I have friends that own the mines. I mean, they can’t live,” he said.

“The restrictions environmentally are so unbelievable where inspectors come two and three times a day, and they can’t afford it any longer and they’re closing all the mines. … It’s not going to happen anymore, folks. We’re going to use our heads.”

It’s not really clear what environmental inspections Trump is talking about that involve inspectors visiting mines two or three times a day. Complete safety inspections of underground coal mines are required once per quarter — and sometimes those inspections take so long that MSHA has people at larger underground operations every day. But surely Mr. Trump, a champion of coal miners, isn’t thinking about cutting back on safety inspections.

Here’s more via a CBS News Twitter feed:

Does Justice campaign not care about the fines?

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Jim Justice

The Gazette-Mail’s David Gutman has a story today about the latest  back-and-forth nonsense between gubernatorial candidates Bill Cole and Jim Justice:

Does the Democratic nominee for governor of West Virginia support the Democratic president and the Democratic candidate to be the next president?

That’s the latest battleground in the race for governor, which has re-emerged with new TV ads and angry news releases after the political lull that followed the recent devastating floods.

State Senate President Bill Cole, Republican candidate for governor, unveiled an ad this week that attempts to tie Jim Justice, the Democrat in the race, to President Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.

Here’s the ad:

But what’s really fascinating about this situation is this, in which Gutman describes the Justice campaign’s response:

Justice said that his donations were to support the re-election campaign of Steve Beshear, then the Democratic governor of Kentucky, not Obama.

His campaign was so eager to avoid the impression that Justice supported Obama that it sent a link to an unflattering article about environmental violations at Justice’s coal mines.

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The looming coal cleanup crisis

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Photo by Vivian Stockman, Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition.

Earlier this week, The New York Times had the latest of the recent national stories to take a stab at explaining the impending crisis regarding the cleanup of decades of pollution problems related to coal mining. The Washington Post had its own version of this story a few months ago.

Here’s a couple of the “nut graphs” from the Times piece:

Regulators are wrangling with bankrupt coal companies to set aside enough money to clean up Appalachia’s polluted rivers and mountains so that taxpayers are not stuck with the $1 billion bill.

The regulators worry that coal companies will use the bankruptcy courts to pay off their debts to banks and hedge funds, while leaving behind some of their environmental cleanup obligations.

The industry asserts that its cleanup plans — which include turning defunct mines back into countryside — are comprehensive and well funded. But some officials say those plans could prove unrealistic and falter as demand for coal remains weak.

The Post summarized the situation in a similar way:

A worsening financial crisis for the nation’s biggest coal companies is sparking concerns that U.S. taxpayers could be stuck with hundreds of millions, if not billions, of dollars in cleanup costs across a landscape of shuttered mines stretching from Appalachia to the northern Plains.

Worries about huge liabilities associated with hundreds of polluted mine sites have mounted as Peabody Energy, the world’s largest publicly traded coal company, was forced to appeal to creditors for an extra 30 days to pay its debts. Two of the four other biggest U.S. coal companies have declared bankruptcy in the past six months.

Under a 1977 federal law, coal companies are required to clean up mining sites when they’re shut down. But the industry’s plummeting fortunes have raised questions about whether companies can fulfill their obligations to rehabilitate vast strip mines in Western states — many of which are on federally owned property — as well as mountaintop-removal mining sites in the East.

It’s great that these issues are getting national attention. But this attention is long overdue. And one thing that is a bit worrisome is that there is a tone in the stories that sometimes makes it seem like this all came out of nowhere — that no one possibly could have imagined this crisis.

That’s just not true.

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Jim Justice

West Virginia billionaire businessman Jim Justice announces that he is running for governor of West Virginia as a Democrat in 2016 in White Sulphur Springs , W.Va., Monday, May 11, 2015. (AP Photo/Chris Tilley)

There was troubling news out of the coalfields of Kentucky over the last few days about billionaire coal operator Jim Justice, the Democratic candidate for governor here in West Virginia. Here’s the Courier-Journal report from my friend Jim Bruggers:

Kentucky environmental regulators spent the weekend and Monday investigating a mudslide at a Pike County surface mine owned by West Virginia coal baron Jim Justice that they say contributed to local, damaging flooding last week.

State officials Monday confirmed their investigation was centered on Justice’s Bent Mountain mining operations, which had significant reclamation deadlines last year and are the subject of ongoing enforcement activities.

As the C-J explained, the local Appalachian News-Express reports that:

… Water suddenly came rushing out of a hollow, damaging several homes in the community of Meta, late Thursday, about eight miles outside Pikeville.

This all comes in the wake of one report in the C-J that Justice’s required mine reclamation projects in Kentucky are missing cleanup deadlines and a second story that — shockingly — Justice needs more time to finish reclamation at Kentucky operations, including at least through the end of the year to fix a major, three-mile-long “highwall” in Pike County.

All of this undoubtedly provides more fodder for the Republican campaign this fall in support of Justice’s GOP opponent for governor, current Senate President Bill Cole. Whether Justice and the Democrats like it, this stuff is fair game, especially since Justice’s major argument for electing him is that he’s such a successful businessman. If he wants voters to believe he would run the state the way he runs his mining operations, then it’s reasonable for the campaign to include a focus on exactly what Justice’s business model looks like.

At the same time, if the Cole campaign and its supporters want to go down this road, it’s also worth asking them about their own views for regulating the coal industry to stop incidents like the one over the weekend in Kentucky.



Coal context: Playing along with election by gaffe

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It’s hard to believe that it took Hoppy Kercheval at MetroNews until today to try to twist into some sort of politically motivated effort to destroy our way of life what was really little more than a bungled effort by Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s at explaining her coalfield economic aid package.

But never fear, because Hoppy’s commentary doesn’t disappoint. He paints the real point of Secretary Clinton’s comments — that she wants to help coal communities that are suffering because of complex changes in our nation’s energy economy — as some sort of afterthought that she cooked up after Sen. Joe Manchin complained about the one sentence that industry has jumped on:

By Tuesday, Clinton was walking back her comment in a letter to Manchin.  “Simply put, I was mistaken in my remarks,” she wrote.  “I wanted to make the point that, as you know too well, while coal will be part of the energy mix for years to come, both in the U.S. and around the world, we have already seen a long-term decline in American coal jobs and a recent wave of bankruptcies as a result of a changing energy market—and we need to do more to support the workers and families facing these challenges.”

But Hoppy is hardly the worst among our state’s media when it comes to misinforming the public on this particular story. Here’s the Wheeling paper’s editorial:

Clinton, comfortably in the lead for the Democrat Party nomination for president, now seems positively boastful about her plans for the coal industry and for the coal-fired power plants on which tens of millions of Americans rely for reasonably priced electricity.

She wants to shut down as many mines as she can. She plans to use draconian taxes to make it impractical for utilities to use coal for power generation.

And then, remarkably:

During the same campaign stop, Clinton insisted that as president, she would help miners who lose their jobs because of her policies. She has not been specific about that, no doubt because if she has a plan, it is much like the socialist government strategies of the past: Offer laid-off workers a few years of unemployment benefits, then forget about them.

The Wheeling paper is just wrong. Like her plan or not, Secretary Clinton does have a plan and it’s actually reasonably specific (though the Gazette-Mail’s David Gutman did note in this story that how the total figure was reached was not entirely clear).  Those folks at the Wheeling paper can read about the plan here.

Hoppy and the Wheeling paper are hardly alone. You can see how much attention this one sentence is getting with a quick Google News search.  Within the space of two days, The Associated Press had put out two separate stories that described the comments from Secretary Clinton as her having “declared” that she was going to put coal miners and coal companies out of business.

Declared? Well, you can watch the video yourself and decide if you think that’s an accurate characterization. Someone at AP must not have — because after they put that out on the wire a second time, the write-thru of the story changed the wording and actually put the comments in a little bit more of the proper context.

But the damage was done. And I’m not talking here about damage to Secretary Clinton’s campaign. That’s her problem. The damage we should all be concerned about is the damage to our already severely weakened ability to actually discuss what’s happening in our coalfield communities, understand what’s driving changes in our energy economy, and try to find ways to come out the other side as a stronger, better state.

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Caring about coal miners?

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Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., flanked by Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., left, and Majority Whip John Cornyn, R-Texas, right, talks to reporters following a closed-door policy meeting at the Capitol in Washington, Tuesday, March 15, 2016. Sen. McConnell said he spoke to Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump on Tuesday and asked him to condemn violence no matter who is responsible. "I took the opportunity to recommend to him that no matter who may be triggering these violent expressions or conflicts that we have been seeing at some of these rallies, it might be a good idea to condemn that and discourage it no matter what the source of it is," McConnell said. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., flanked by Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., left, and Majority Whip John Cornyn, R-Texas, right, talks to reporters following a closed-door policy meeting at the Capitol in Washington, Tuesday, March 15, 2016.

As predicted, the media obsession with one sentence from one presidential candidate continues, but it’s interesting to dig deeper into some of the reactions to Democrat Hillary Clinton’s comments about her plans for helping the nation’s struggling coal communities (by the way, I’ve posted Secretary Clinton’s letter to Sen. Joe Manchin here).

Some media accounts (see also here) have given attention to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s reaction on the Senate floor:

… When President Obama was a candidate, he boasted that his energy tax policies would make electricity prices skyrocket for American families. When President Obama took office, his administration declared a war on coal families and on their jobs. For a time, his administration tried to deny it was declaring war on anyone, but now we hear boasting from the highest ranks of the Democratic Party that these policies are going to put coal miners out of business Miners in Kentucky and across the country know that coal keeps the lights on and puts food on the table. What they want is to provide for their families. But here is how more Democrats seem to view these hard-working Americans and their families: just statistics, just the cost of doing business, just obstacles to their ideology. This is callous, it is wrong, and it underlines the need to stand up for hard-working, middle-class coal families. That is what I have done here in the Senate. That is what I will continue to do. I hope our colleagues will join me.

But what hasn’t been mentioned much is that after Sen. McConnell’s comments, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid made some comments on the floor (referring to this move by Sen. McConnell, documented by the Washington Post). Here’s what Sen. Reid had to say, according to the Congressional Record entry:

I understand the Republican leader’s concern about coal not being the way it was. It is simply that the American people have made a decision that we are going to have to look for another way to produce energy. There is still a place for coal in our society, but everyone has to acknowledge that it is not as it was a few years ago. I wish the Republican leader cared more about moving to help the pensions of these coal miners. They are desperately looking for support. We support them on this side. All the coal miners support it. We can get no support from the Republicans. We tried during the work we did at the end of the year. We came close, but Republicans said no.

I want all those coal miners from Kentucky and around the country to understand that we are trying to help them with their pensions, but unless we get some help from the Republicans, there will be no support. That is too bad. We are trying. We are trying. We are trying.


While the coal industry and the media are focused on trying to turn Obama’s “war on coal” into Clinton’s “war on coal,” the U.S. Energy Information Administration reminds us today:

For decades, coal has been the dominant energy source for generating electricity in the United States. EIA’s Short-Term Energy Outlook (STEO) is now forecasting that 2016 will be the first year that natural gas-fired generation exceeds coal generation in the United States on an annual basis. Natural gas generation first surpassed coal generation on a monthly basis in April 2015, and the generation shares for coal and natural gas were nearly identical in 2015, each providing about one-third of all electricity generation.


The recent decline in the generation share of coal, and the concurrent rise in the share of natural gas, was mainly a market-driven response to lower natural gas prices that have made natural gas generation more economically attractive.


Environmental regulations affecting power plants have played a secondary role in driving coal’s declining generation share over the past decade, although plant owners in some states have made investments to shift generation toward natural gas at least partly for environmental reasons. Looking forward, environmental regulations may play a larger role in conjunction with market forces. Owners of some coal plants will face decisions to either retire units or reduce their utilization rate to comply with requirements to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from existing fossil fuel-fired power plants under the Clean Power Plan, which is scheduled to take effect in 2022 but has recently been stayed by the Supreme Court pending the outcome of ongoing litigation.

And who would have thought:

Beyond the growing market share for natural gas-fired generation over the past decade, coal’s generation share has also been reduced by the growing market share of renewables other than hydroelectric power, especially wind and solar. Unlike the growth of natural gas-fired generation, which has largely been market-driven, increased use of nonhydro renewables has largely been driven by a combination of state and federal policies. The use of renewable energy sources such as wind and solar has also grown rapidly in recent years so that generation from these types of renewables is now surpassing generation from hydropower.

Clinton and coal: Giving the industry its soundbite

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Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and Democratic speaks at the Ohio Democratic Party Legacy Dinner at the Greater Columbus Convention Center in Columbus, Ohio, Sunday, March 13, 2016. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and Democratic speaks at the Ohio Democratic Party Legacy Dinner at the Greater Columbus Convention Center in Columbus, Ohio, Sunday, March 13, 2016. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

Well, it’s pretty clear that the coal industry got a potentially valuable soundbite last evening from Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. Secretary Clinton was asked to “make the case to poor whites who vote Republican why they should vote for you and your economic policies” and in offering one example, Secretary Clinton explained:

I’m the only candidate which has a policy about how to bring economic opportunity using clean, renewable energy as the key, into coal country. Because we’re going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business. And we’re going to make it clear that we don’t want to forget those people.

Those people labored in those mines for generations, losing their health, often losing their lives to turn on our lights and power our factories. Now we’ve got to move away from coal and all of the other fossil fuels. But I don’t want to move away from the people who did the best they could to produce the energy that we relied on.

As my friend Jim Bruggers at the Courier-Journal in Louisville points out, part of Secretary Clinton’s comment — “…We’re going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business” — sounds a lot like then-candidate Barack Obama’s remark in 2008 about how he would “bankrupt the coal industry“. Of course, the industry and its Republican friends have continued for years to take now-President Obama’s comments out of context. As I wrote during the 2008 campaign:

During a Jan. 17 interview with the Chronicle’s editorial board, an editorial writer noted that Obama co-sponsored a bill to encourage turning coal into liquid fuel for vehicles, an approach energy experts warn would likely create more greenhouse emissions than traditional gasoline. The editorial writer asked Obama how he squared his support for coal with the need to do something about climate change.

Obama responded that the country needs to “figure out how we can use coal without emitting greenhouse gases and carbon,” and that he believes a “cap-and-trade” emissions program is the best way to do that.

Such a program would put an overall ceiling on greenhouse gas emissions. Companies would need “allowances” from regulators for every ton of carbon dioxide their facilities pump into the atmosphere. Companies could reduce their emissions to meet the caps. Or they could buy or trade for “allowances” to keep using older facilities.

“That would create a market in which whatever technologies are out there being presented, whatever power plants are being built, they would have to meet the rigors of that market, and the ratcheted down caps that are imposed every year,” Obama told Chronicle editors. “So if somebody wants to build a coal power plant, they can, it’s just that it would bankrupt them because they’re going to be charged a huge sum for all that greenhouse gas that’s being emitted.”

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Head in the snow: Why W.Va. doesn’t move forward

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Utility trucks head west bound on I64 crossing the St. Albans/Nitro bridge, in St. Albans, W.V., Saturday, Jan. 23, 2016. (Tom Hindman /Charleston Gazette-Mail via AP) MANDATORY CREDIT

Utility trucks head west bound on I64 crossing the St. Albans/Nitro bridge, in St. Albans, W.V., Saturday, Jan. 23, 2016. Photo by Tom Hindman.

When we last left the West Virginia Legislature, this was the sad report from The Associated Press:

phillips_rupertAs the snowstorm approached, a West Virginia delegate handed out sunscreen to his colleagues in an attempt to ridicule global warming.

Democratic Delegate Rupie Phillips passed around the bottles of sunscreen Thursday.

The lawmaker from coal-producing Logan County told his colleagues on the House floor, “I worry about you. You’ve got global warming going on. It’s not cold outside. It’s in your mind.”

Phillips said he was going to get everyone a pair of Maui Jim sunglasses, but they are “a little expensive.”


It’s hard to know where to start with this kind of silly stuff. Do we engage with it, and show the science that indicates, just for example that big blizzards in winter don’t disprove global warming and that climate change can actually make East Coast blizzards worse? Or do we ignore it, and hope it goes away?

The Beckley paper decided to take it on, with a very strong editorial that explained how we ignore science at our own risk:

It is clear Delegate Phillips is ignoring facts. Even the kids know that coal, which leaves a heavy carbon footprint in its wake, is a major contributor to global warming. Coal is a fossil fuel just like natural gas. When it is burned, it releases carbon dioxide into the environment. There, it helps trap heat and moisture in our little dome of life. It’s called the greenhouse effect — a pretty simple concept to grasp for anyone paying attention. And so, it gets hotter here on Earth and we get more extreme weather events. Even the oceans are warming up. It is undeniable. It is science. It has been researched. It is a fact. It is the truth.

But forget all of that. Forget the mountains of research. Forget all of the climate scientists around the world who have poured their intellectual curiosity into their work. According to Phillips, one winter weekend storm was all the evidence we needed.


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Industry seeks to stall black lung protections

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The latest news on the black lung issue is this:

Coal companies are asking an appeals court to block implementation of the second phase of the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration plan for addressing coal miners’ exposure to respirable dust, the cause of black lung disease.

Parties such as Murray Energy Corp., the National Mining Association, Walter Energy Inc. and the Alabama Coal Association are seeking to block implementation of the remainder of the rule ahead of its Feb. 1 rollout date. The rule was unveiled in April 2014 and aims to lower occurrence of black lung, a disease that has been a contributing factor in the death of 76,000 coal miners since 1968.

As that report, from SNL Financial’s Taylor Kuykendall, continues:

The industry argues the rule was unlawfully promulgated without the participation of the National Institute for Occupation Safety and Health. Already, the filing states, the rule has imposed substantial burdens and costs in the form of re-engineering mines, purchasing expensive equipment, training and hiring personnel and new government certifications.

“These costs have hit a coal industry substantially weakened financially even compared to the already-weakened state it was in when the dust rule was promulgated in 2014,” the filing states.

You can read the industry court filing here, and there’s another media report on the issue out in the Herald-Leader:

The coal industry is seeking to forestall new standards aimed at cutting miners’ exposure to breathable dust that can cause deadly black lung disease.

Feb. 1 is the start date for the second phase of the rule. It would require miners to wear continuous personal monitors to check their exposure to dust, and companies would have to do more frequent sampling to check for compliance with dust limits.

Court won’t block Clean Power Plan

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Climate Rules Arkansas

Here’s the news from The Wall Street Journal:

A federal court denied a request by more than a dozen states on Wednesday to temporarily block the Obama administration’s carbon regulations while they mount a full legal challenge to the rules.

The decision is an early victory for the Environmental Protection Agency, which completed the rules last month calling for carbon emissions from power plants to be cut 32% by 2030 from 2005 levels. The regulations are the cornerstone of President Barack Obama’s climate plan, and Wednesday’s ruling is an early legal salvo in what is expected to be a yearslong court battle over Mr. Obama’s climate agenda.

West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey has been leading the legal fight against the EPA rule. You can read the court’s brief decision here.