Coal Tattoo

How President Obama really failed the coalfields

Share This Article
President Barack Obama listens to questions during a news conference in the Brady press briefing room at the White House in Washington, Monday, Nov. 14, 2016. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

President Barack Obama listens to questions during a news conference in the Brady press briefing room at the White House in Washington, Monday, Nov. 14, 2016. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

Yesterday’s post, “President-elect Trump’s coal con,” got a fair amount of attention and it is indeed a topic that deserves to be talked about by everybody who cares about the coalfields and about our state’s politics.

But it’s worth remembering that the political climate at any place at any particular time doesn’t just materialize out of thin air. The climate is created, by things that human beings (like candidates, party chairs, the media, votes) can control and by things they can’t control.

In West Virginia, the political climate didn’t just suddenly become anti-Obama and anti-EPA to the extent that it has become so. It took years of hard work by Republican activists, career campaign consultants, and coal industry public relations people. The truth is, though, that many Democrats — I’m looking at you, Sen. Joe Manchin, haven’t forgotten that awful ad where you shot the cap-and-trade bill — gave the industry and the Republicans plenty of help along the way.

Still, if you’re one of those West Virginia Democrats who wants to blame various election results on those awful people from the national party you belong to, it is worth trying to think about what really you should be focused on in that regard. Really, what that all goes back to is a little statement buried in a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency press release way, way back in 2009. At the time, EPA was announcing a bit of a crackdown (it was never really much of a crackdown) on mountaintop removal coal-mining. Here’s what it said:

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.

Sounds great, right? The problem is, the Obama administration didn’t really get moving with a broad and detailed plan for any of that sort of thing until about six years later — in 2015, President Obama’s next-to-last-year in office. In 2015 and again this year, the White House included a major coalfield aid package in its budget proposal to Congress.

Continue reading…

President-elect Trump’s coal con

Share This Article
A group of coal miners wave signs for Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump as they wait for a rally in Charleston, W.Va., Thursday, May 5, 2016. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

 

We had another story over the weekend examining what the outcome of last week’s presidential election might mean for West Virginia’s coal industry, and more importantly for the coalfield communities that are hurting in the wake of mining’s inevitable decline.

At the same time, there were remarkable reports out of both of the major papers in Kentucky that are worth reading.

First, here’s the Courier-Journal:

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell hedged on Friday about when and if Republicans would be able to bring coal mining jobs to Kentucky, saying that is a “private sector activity.”

“We are going to be presenting to the president a variety of options that could end this assault,” McConnell said. “Whether that immediately brings business back, that’s hard to tell because this is a private sector activity.”

And there’s this even more remarkable line from the Herald-Leader:

 The interim president of the Kentucky Coal Association was more direct about the future of coal mining in Eastern Kentucky.

“I would not expect to see a lot of growth because of the Trump presidency,” Nick Carter said in an interview. “If there is any growth in Eastern Kentucky, it will be because of an improved economy for coal.”

So, basically, all those politicians and industry officials and career campaign consultants who spent most of the campaign trying to convince the hard-working people of the coalfields that another boom would be just around the corner … Well, I guess we were supposed to take them seriously, but not literally.

Coal decline: It’s the shale gas, West Virginia

Share This Article
COAL TRAIN

A CSX train loaded with coal winds its way into the mountains in this photo taken near the New River at Cotton Hill in Fayette County, W.Va.  (AP Photo/Jeff Gentner)

There’s an important new study out that goes to the heart of the political discussion in West Virginia about the coal industry’s decline. Here’s the press release from the authors at Case Western University:

Cheap shale gas produced by fracking has driven the decline in coal production in the United States during the last decade, researchers at the Great Lakes Energy Institute at Case Western Reserve University have found.

Power plants, which use 93 percent of the coal produced nationally, have been operating under the same EPA regulations signed into law by President George H.W. Bush in 1990. Proposed new rules since then have all been challenged in court and not implemented until June 2016, when the EPA’s restrictions on mercury and other toxic emissions were approved by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Consumption of coal continued to grow under those 1990-era EPA rules until 2008, and then went into steady decline, dropping by 23 percent from 2008 thru 2015.

The data show the drop in those years to be correlated with the shale revolution, as natural gas production increased by a factor of more than 10 and its price dropped in half, the researchers say. And, due to the continuing–and in some cases accelerating–technological and economic advantages of gas over coal, the decline in coal is expected to continue at least decades into the future.

Mingguo Hong, associate professor of electrical engineering and computer science at Case Western Reserve and co-author of the study, said:

Some people attribute the decline in coal-generated electricity to the EPA’s air-quality rules, even calling it ‘Obama’s war on coal . While we can’t say that the EPA rules have no impact — as, for example, discouraging the building of new coal power plants because of the expectation that tougher air-quality rules will clear the courts — the data say the EPA rules have not been the driving force.

Hong and co-author Walter Culver, a founding member of the Great Lakes Energy Institute Advisory Board at the university, say the data show that shale-gas competition is what’s been hurting coal as of today. They expect that, as wind and solar sources of electricity continue to improve, they will be tough competitors to coal in the not-distant future. According to Culver:

If you’re a power plant operator and you see gas supply is continuing to increase and natural gas can do the job cheaper–by a lot–the decision to switch from coal is pretty easy. As we look toward the future, we see no natural mechanisms that will permit coal to recover.

Fact check: Donald Trump’s 1,000 years of coal

Share This Article
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)

 

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)

If coal and energy issues are at the top of the list of things you care about, you had to sit through a lot of other stuff during last night’s presidential debate, but eventually you heard from Republican Donald Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton on this issue.

It was the next-to-last question from an audience member:

What steps will your energy policy take to meet our energy needs, while at the same time remaining environmentally friendly and minimizing job loss for fossil power plant workers?

Over at West Virginia MetroNews,  Brad McElhinny ran through their responses in a piece posted earlier this morning. Brad also cited “fact-check” stories by the Los Angeles Times and the Associated Press. They mostly focused on the question of whether Secretary Clinton wants to put all of the nation’s coal miners out of work, an issue that is more political theater than policy or reality (see my previous analysis of this whole question here).

The thing that really needs fact-checked from this whole exchange is this from Mr. Trump:

There is a thing called clean coal. Coal will last for 1,000 years in this country.

Coal will last for 1,000 years in this country? Really? Wow.

Remember this from four years ago? That time that then-GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney said, in an ad attacking President Obama’s “war on coal”, said: “We have 250 years of coal, why wouldn’t we use it?”

After looking into it at the time, here’s what we published in the Gazette:

In new campaign ads criticizing the Obama administration’s coal policies, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney cites an estimate of the nation’s remaining coal reserves that has been increasingly questioned as overly optimistic.One of two new Romney ads includes footage of his visit last month to an Ohio coal mine, with a voiceover of a Romney speech where he says, “We have 250 years of coal, why wouldn’t we use it?”

Various industry publications have cited that same estimate, saying, “The United States has more than a 250-year-supply of coal if it continues using coal at the same rate at which it uses coal today.”

But in a major report five years ago, the National Academy of Sciences concluded that the best estimate it could confirm was that U.S. coal reserves would last less than half that long.

“The United States is endowed with a vast amount of coal,” said the report, written by a panel of geologists, engineers and industry officials for the National Academy’s National Research Council.

“Despite significant uncertainties in generating reliable estimates of the nation’s coal resources and reserves, there are sufficient economically mineable reserves to meet anticipated needs through 2030,” said the report, written at the request of the late Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va. “Further into the future, there is probably sufficient coal to meet the nation’s needs for more than 100 years at current rates of consumption,” the report said. “However, it is not possible to confirm the often-quoted suggestion that there is a sufficient supply of coal for the next 250 years.”

Continue reading…

EP-160829856

 

Sometimes victories are so rare for the people of the coalfields that it’s tempting to jump on just about anything to try to celebrate some movement forward. At least it seemed that way this last week or so.

Take the announcement on Monday by the Kanawha Forest Coalition, described in the Gazette-Mail by Rick Steelhammer:

A two-year struggle by the Kanawha Forest Coalition to halt a strip mine operating adjacent to Kanawha State Forest has ended in a bittersweet victory for the citizens group, after the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection ordered a permanent end to mining at the Kanawha Development No. 2 Mine.

Under the terms of a DEP consent order signed late last month after a year of negotiations between the coalition and the permit holder, Keystone Industries of Jacksonville, Florida, “no additional mineral removal activities may occur” on the 413-acre surface mine permit. “Activity is exclusively restricted to actions necessary to achieve phased release of the permit,” including rebuilding sediment ditches that are leaking or that contain acidic material, and mapping the locations of containment areas for selenium-bearing or acidic materials, according to the consent order.

Bittersweet for sure. On the one hand, this situation certainly showed how citizens can play a vital role in enforcement of the federal surface mining law. And how DEP– in this case especially its inspection and enforcement staff — can do right by the citizens, especially if the citizens focus on the science and the law and are honest advocates, playing it straight with the many allies they have inside the agency, and don’t let up.

But the question that can’t be avoided here — not if any lesson is to be learned — is why in the world did the DEP issue this permit in the first place? Citizens opposed the permit. They appealed it. They warned that something about like what ended up happening was likely to happen if DEP pushed forward.

secretary-randy-huffman-portrait_small2Hopefully, DEP Secretary Randy Huffman is asking his staff some hard questions about how the permit review process — not to mention the appeal process (in which sometimes agency lawyers act like they’re defending a murder case, making the litigation far more adversarial than it need be, given that the public is the ultimate client) — was handled in this instance.

DEP staff are human and can make mistakes (like writing congressional testimony that throws environmental justice under the bus or advocating a rule that cuts off important avenues for public involvement, or underestimating public concern  about or forgetting the long history and context of a rulemaking about cancer-causing chemicals in our rivers and streams) that aren’t always the result of politics or agency capture or something like that. Sometimes DEP officials just disagree with citizens, though – and sometimes citizens don’t do as good of a job as they might making their case.

Continue reading…

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%.

Continue reading…

Will Congress protect retired coal miners?

Share This Article
CER

Photo by DYLAN LOVAN / AP — United Mine Workers of America president Cecil Roberts speaks to about 4,000 retired members at the Lexington Center in Lexington, Ky., last Tuesday. Roberts urged members to push for legislation that would protect pensions and health care benefits for retirees that have been put in jeopardy due to a downturn in the coal industry.

There’s been a growing public push for Congress to take action on legislation to rescue the troubled health-care and pension funds that provide for tens of thousands of retired United Mine Workers and their families across our nation’s coalfields.

Last week, the UMWA held a huge rally in Lexington to try to drum up more support for the bipartisan legislation. As the Associated Press recounted:

United Mine Workers president Cecil Roberts told the gathering in Lexington of about 4,000 members from seven states that miners spent their lives working in dangerous places to provide the nation’s electricity and steel. The miners, some of whom arrived in wheelchairs, don’t deserve having their benefits put in jeopardy, Roberts said.

“What do they want these people to do, get out of their wheelchairs and go back to the mines?” Roberts remarked after the rally.

(The AP, for reasons passing understanding, felt compelled to comment in its report that, Cecil Roberts “is popular among the union membership for his fiery oratorical style.”)

That rally followed a series of Senate floor speeches last month by Democrats, calling for action on the bill, and a letter by Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and others urging Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (whose role in blocking the measure was documented by the Washington Post) to act on the legislation prior to the summer recess.

In West Virginia, Republican Rep. David McKinley has been a strong supporter of the bill, and just yesterday, Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., delivered a floor speech on the issue:

Continue reading…

The looming coal cleanup crisis

Share This Article
hobet_mtr_400_vivian_stockman1

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.

Continue reading…

Donald Trump and the coal miners

Share This Article
FILE - In this Tuesday, April 26, 2016 file photo, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks during a primary night news conference, in New York. Trump's highly anticipated foreign policy speech will test whether the Republican presidential front-runner known for his raucous rallies and eyebrow-raising statements can present a more presidential persona as he works to coalesce a still-weary Republican establishment around his candidacy. Trump's campaign says his speech Wednesday will focus on "several critical foreign policy issues" such as trade, the global economy and national security. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson, File)

In this Tuesday, April 26, 2016 file photo, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks during a primary night news conference, in New York. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson, File)

By sometime early this evening, West Virginians will get to see first-hand whether presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump can give Democratic gubernatorial front-runner Jim Justice a run for his money in the category of pandering to coal miners.

Justice, of course, is falsely telling our state’s hardworking miners and their families that if they will just elect him governor, West Virginia will end up “mining more coal … than has ever been mined before.” Justice told Hoppy Kercheval to “mark it down.” While Justice was blustering, two of his companies were on trial in Wyoming County, facing a suit from 15 families who say one of his mining operations contaminated their drinking water wells. (UPDATED: The jury in the Wyoming County case ruled in Justice’s favor.)

Trump, meanwhile, had this to say the other night after winning the GOP primary in Indiana:

… And West Virginia. And we’re going to get those miners back to work. I’ll tell you what. We’re going to get those miners back to work … we’re not going to be Hillary Clinton, and I watched her three or four weeks ago when she was talking about the miners as if they were just numbers and she was talking about she wants the mines closed and she will never let them work again.

Let me tell you, the miners in West Virginia and Pennsylvania which was so great to me last week and Ohio and all over, they’re going to start to work again. Believe me. You’re going to be proud again to be miners.

The Associated Press has a pretty decent “fact check” item out on the subject of Trump and Appalachian coal. The AP concludes:

Trump, however, has yet to explain exactly how he will revitalize Appalachia’s coal industry. To pull it off, he will have to overcome market forces and a push for cleaner fuels that have pummeled coal.

Coal’s slump is largely the result of cheap natural gas, which now rivals coal as a fuel for generating electricity. Older coal-fired plants are being idled to meet clean-air standards.

Another hurdle for reviving coal mining in Appalachia: less coal. Reserves of coal still in the ground are smaller than in western states like Wyoming, the leading coal producer.

The story goes on:

It is unclear what Trump would do to increase mining jobs. He has long criticized the Obama administration’s Environmental Protection Agency, saying that its proposals to tighten emission standards on coal-burning power plants are killing American jobs. A Trump adviser said that a Trump administration would review many EPA regulations including those affecting the coal industry.

While the requirements have raised the cost of operating coal-fired plants, experts say a bigger factor in coal’s decline has been cheaper natural gas. Drilling techniques such as fracking have sparked a boom in gas production, driving down prices and prompting utilities to switch from coal.

As recently as 2008, about half the electricity in the U.S. came from burning coal and one-fifth from burning natural gas. Today, each accounts for about one-third — nuclear, hydroelectric and renewables like solar and wind make up most of the rest. Weak economic growth has hurt demand for Appalachian coal used in making steel.

Continue reading…

Jim Justice

In an otherwise typical press release responding to the downgrading of West Virginia government’s bond rating, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin had a pretty interesting line. It went like this:

During my State of the State address, I acknowledged the unprecedented shift that has taken place in our state and our nation and its impact on our state’s coal industry. Across the country and around the world, the coal industry – an economic driver that has supported West Virginia for generations – is facing serious challenges. This is not a typical downturn. This one is different, and even the most optimistic among us realize it is unlikely that coal will ever reach the production levels of the past.

Gov. Tomblin and his staff must have missed what one of their party’s candidates said the other day on Hoppy Kercheval’s “Talkline” radio show. Here’s the full quote from Democratic gubernatorial candidate (and coal operator and billionaire) Jim Justice:

I am telling you and you just mark it down. Jim Justice is telling you today two things. We are going to end up in West Virginia mining more coal in West Virginia than has ever been mined before. Mark it down. And the other thing is we’ve got to be diversified off the chart, because even when we were mining coal at our highest levels we were still 50th at everything coming or going. What does that tell us? It tells us we’ve got to have everything else. We’ve got to have tourism and agriculture and education and on and on and on.

Justice has a good point there in that last part — West Virginia’s economy has always been challenging, even when the coal industry was going great guns. But let’s just look at that first part again:

We are going to end up in West Virginia mining more coal in West Virginia than has ever been mined before.

Really?

Maybe there’s some analysis I haven’t seen, or some report that’s not yet been widely circulated. Maybe Jim Justice knows something the rest of us don’t. He is a billionaire after all. And he loves West Virginia.

So I asked Justice campaign spokesman Grant Herring for more information.  Starting last Wednesday, I wrote to Grant about Justice’s statements:

I’m hoping that you could point me to 3 examples of independent experts or published reports that support this statement as being factual.

If you don’t have three independent experts or published reports, I’d be interested in whatever data or evidence Mr. Justice and/or his campaign have that would tend in any way to support this statement? What exactly is the basis for such a statement?

Didn’t hear a word back. Wrote him twice more. Crickets.

Continue reading…

Report supports need for ‘Future Fund’

Share This Article
COAL TRAIN

A C.S.X. train loaded with coal winds its way into the mountains in this Nov. 21, 2004 file photo taken near the New River at Cotton Hill in Fayette County, W.Va.  (AP Photo/Jeff Gentner)

There’s a new report out from the Bookings Institute that’s worth taking a look at. Here’s what the press release says:

The recent boom and bust of unconventional oil and gas development, or “fracking,” has reopened serious questions about resource management in many U.S. states. While the oil and gas boom generated revenue, jobs, and economic development, the recent bust has adversely impacted state budgets due to declining industry investments in exploration and production and job cuts.

The boom-bust cycle of unconventional oil and gas development highlights the need for strategic management by state governments of fracking-related revenues, not only to minimize the less desirable aspects of the boom-bust cycle but also to enhance long-term prosperity. States can address these challenges by imposing a reasonable severance (extraction) tax on their oil and gas industry and channeling a portion of the revenue into permanent trust funds. In doing so, states can convert volatile near-term revenues from unconventional oil and gas development into a longer-term and continuous source of investment funds for building sustainable and dynamic economies.

Locally, the West Virginia Center for Budget and Policy is noting the significance of this issue to our state:

“This study not only adds additional credibility to our research on creating a permanent mineral trusts fund in the state, but it makes clear that we need to fully fund our state’s Future Fund in order to improve the state’s long-term fiscal health and diversify our economy,” said Ted Boettner, Executive Director with the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy.
 
The West Virginia legislature passed a bill to create the West Virginia Future Fund in 2014. The bill was amended to remove reliable funding mechanisms, however, and to-date has failed to be funded. The West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy released a report in 2012 that provides recommendations on how the make the West Virginia Future Fund successful.

Obama to continue push for coalfield aid

Share This Article
President Barack Obama speaks at a town hall styled event at McKinley Senior High School in Baton Rouge, La., Thursday, Jan. 14, 2016. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

There’s big news coming today about the federal coal-leasing program, with an Interior Department press conference planned later this morning and this report out from The Wall Street Journal:

The Obama administration plans to announce Friday that it is going to change the way the federal government handles coal leases on public lands, the latest step in President Barack Obama’s plan to address climate change, according to a congressional aide.

The administration is also expected to put in place a moratorium on at least some new coal leasing until the Interior Department conducts a broad environmental review, which could include coal mining’s impact on climate change, wildlife and other environmental issues. An Interior Department representative didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

As the Journal noted, this is following up on President Obama’s comments earlier this week in his final State of the Union address:

Now we’ve got to accelerate the transition away from dirty energy.  Rather than subsidize the past, we should invest in the future – especially in communities that rely on fossil fuels.  That’s why I’m going to push to change the way we manage our oil and coal resources, so that they better reflect the costs they impose on taxpayers and our planet.

At the same time, the administration is also making clear that it plans to continue a major push to help coalfield communities in Appalachia that are struggling through the industry’s continuing downturn.  White House officials told me this week that the upcoming budget proposal for next financial year would include more funding for the Power Plus Plan.

Readers will recall that last year, President Obama included significant funding in his budget proposal to help coalfield communities, including $1 billion in new spending over five years to clean up abandoned strip mines, additional funding for research on carbon capture technology for power plants, and nearly $4 billion over 10 yeas to protect the health and retirement benefits of retired coal miners.

Congress came through with some money for some of these projects, such as a $90 million pilot project for abandoned mine cleanups, $50 million for the Appalachian Regional Commission, and $15 million to the Economic Development Administration for projects and grants under Power Plus.

While the full budget proposal won’t be public until next month, White House officials say that it will include proposing to continue the additional money for the Appalachian Regional Commission, along with more money for other components of the administration’s coalfield aid plan.

“We expect to come out of the gate pretty strong,” one White House official told me. “We are going to be making this a priority for us.”

Continue reading…

President Barack Obama delivers his State of the Union address before a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Jan. 12, 2016. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci, Pool)

President Barack Obama delivers his State of the Union address before a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Jan. 12, 2016. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci, Pool)

It seems like a long time ago that if President Obama would deliver a State of the Union address or other major speech that touched on energy there would be at least some vague mention of “clean coal.”

Last night, well … not so much.

Instead, President Obama’s discussion of such things last night in his final State of the Union went something like this:

Seven years ago, we made the single biggest investment in clean energy in our history.  Here are the results.  In fields from Iowa to Texas, wind power is now cheaper than dirtier, conventional power.  On rooftops from Arizona to New York, solar is saving Americans tens of millions of dollars a year on their energy bills, and employs more Americans than coal – in jobs that pay better than average.  We’re taking steps to give homeowners the freedom to generate and store their own energy – something environmentalists and Tea Partiers have teamed up to support.  Meanwhile, we’ve cut our imports of foreign oil by nearly 60 percent, and cut carbon pollution more than any other country on Earth.

Now, I don’t know about this business where solar “employs more Americans than coal.” The numbers touted by folks like The Solar Foundation seem to include a pretty broad brush, whereas the figures for the coal industry are a smaller subset that focuses more strictly on miners — not on things like manufacturing, sales and distribution or “project development.” I’m not sure it’s a completely fair comparison. This has been a popular comparison for the wind industry as well, and I’ve pointed out before how that bothered me as well.

New York Times columnist Paul Krugman dismisses questions about these kinds of comparisons:

… While you might want to quibble with specific numbers, the boom in renewable energy is very real, as are the surging number of jobs in things like solar panel installation. I can’t imagine any calculation under which the number of green jobs added doesn’t exceed the loss in coal mining, which was already a shadow of its former self before Obama took office.

There’s no question that the boom in renewable energy is real. But there is also no question that coal’s downturn is hurting many families in the coalfields and it’s also hammering the budgets of coal-producing states like West Virginia.

Continue reading…

Will W.Va. look for some other baskets?

Share This Article
fog1_I130113215421

Photo by Kenny Kemp

There’s a new white paper out from Downstream Strategies that summarizes some of their previous findings and recommendations (see here, here, here and here) about the place West Virginia coalfield residents find themselves in.

It’s called, “All of our eggs in one basket?” and among its key messages are:

Among the key messages:

For years, we have known that Central Appalachian coal production was going to decrease dramatically. And it has.

Coal production is falling fast in southern West Virginia, but staying stable in northern West Virginia. This is significantly impacting coal-dependent communities in southern West Virginia.

This is a statewide issue. Severance tax revenues from the coal industry are declining, and increased revenues from the natural gas industry have not fully made up the difference.

The General Revenue Fund relies heavily on severance tax revenues.

Recent budgets have overestimated expected revenues from severance taxes, including the first three months of fiscal year 2016.

Their conclusion:

For years, we have known that coal production was likely to drop significantly in southern West Virginia, and that coal
production will likely continue to decline in the future. Now that these projections are coming true, the state is grappling
with fewer jobs, bankrupt companies, and declining severance tax revenues.

Together, these present unprecedented challenges not just for southern West Virginia counties, but also for the state as a
whole.

New approaches are needed.

President Obama on helping the coalfields

Share This Article
President Barack Obama, right, listens to Charleston Police Chief, Brent Webster, front along with Dr. Michael Brumage, left, Cary Dixon, second from left, during an event at the East End Family Resource Center in Charleston, W.Va., Wednesday, Oct. 21, 2015. Obama is in Charleston to to host a community discussion on the prescription drug abuse and heroin epidemic. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

President Barack Obama, right, listens to Charleston Police Chief, Brent Webster, front along with Dr. Michael Brumage, left, Cary Dixon, second from left, during an event at the East End Family Resource Center in Charleston, W.Va., Wednesday, Oct. 21, 2015.(AP Photo/Steve Helber)

There’s a lot of coverage in the Gazette-Mail about President Obama’s visit to Charleston yesterday to explore ways to help the state (and the country) deal with drug addiction’s terrible toll on our communities.

Coal Tattoo readers will want to check out this story by Joel Elbert, which includes details of the “rally” against President Obama’s coal policies and also this exclusive interview the Gazette-Mail’s David Gutman did with the president.

David asked this question:

Well, Mr. President, this opioid crisis has kind of affected small cities and towns across rural America particularly hard. In West Virginia, that’s cities like Oceana and Williamson that are struggling with disappearing coal jobs, but there’s cities and towns all across the country dealing with this and at the same time hollowed-out downtowns and joblessness, so I’m wondering what do you see as the future for these small cities and towns that are maybe seeing major industries disappear, in terms of both beating this drug problem but also turning around local economies that kind of help fuel the drug problem?

The president responded:

Well, as you heard me say on stage, this substance abuse and addiction problem cuts across communities and demographics, but if a community is weakened, then it just has less resistance to this kind of epidemic.

And, you know, one of the things that we are really emphasizing is strategies to help local communities come up with a plan to diversify their economies, to invest in the kinds of strategies that are going to bring new businesses into their communities, to help retrain workers for the industries of the future rather than the industries of the past.

And, you know, we’ve seen successes around the country with concentrated effort, but it is particularly acute in a place like West Virginia, where you’ve got a lot of communities that were reliant on one particular industry, like coal, or one particular factory.

And part of our goal here is to help community leaders re-imagine new industries coming in that are more on the growth side. In my budget, we’ve got a program called POWER Plus and the whole purpose of it would be to give additional dollars to communities that have been adversely impacted by the decline of coal jobs, so that they can start looking at health care, high-tech, clean energy jobs.

There’s been a resurgence in manufacturing in America, how do we start looking at some of the more streamlined, high-tech manufacturing that’s taking place and get it into places like this?

But it’s going to be a long process. You know the decline in some of these local, rural economies didn’t happen overnight. Its resurgence will not happen overnight, but it can happen.

In the meantime we’ve got to make sure that our kids aren’t getting exposed to the kinds of debilitating drug problems that obviously are personal tragedies for them and their families but are also taking away a valuable resource for economic development.

President Barack Obama waves as he boards Air Force One prior to his departure from Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, Calif., Monday, Oct. 12, 2015. Obama is returning to Washington after wrapping up a 4-day west coast swing. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

There I was in Judge Berger’s courtroom again on Friday, as the criminal trial of former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship continued. Former Massey official David Hughart was on the stand. He was being cross examined by defense attorney Blair Brown. And Brown finally got in the question Blankenship’s team has been dying to ask Hughart:

Okay. The day before your meeting, your February, 2012, meeting with Mr. Ruby and Mr. Goodwin and Agent
Lafferty you were, in fact, detained after you had purchased drugs; correct?

Hughart admitted this was true, and that he had spent more than $4,000, giving the money to a confidential informant in exchange for 120 Opana pills.  Blankenship himself has thrown Hughart’s drug problem back at him, and I’ve noticed at least one member of the Friends of Don Blankenship complaining the media hasn’t given enough attention to this issue in covering the trial.

But under re-direct examination by Assistant U.S. Attorney Greg McVey, Hughart told a little more of the story about how he came to be a drug addict:

I was injured once in the mines and was on medication. And then my injury flared back up and I was prescribed medication. And it went on for a period of four or five, six months of taking that medication and I just become addicted to it.

Right now in West Virginia, it’s hard to escape the problems that drug addiction causes. It’s everywhere and affects everyone. Likewise, it remains difficult to divorce just about anything in West Virginia — the good, the bad, the promising, the challenging — from our complicated relationship with the coal industry.

So it’s inevitable, I guess, that tomorrow’s visit to Charleston by President Obama — an event focused on drug abuse — has also become yet another public relations battle over coal’s past, current and most of all future, role in our state.

The Friends of Coal — an industry front group — is encouraging its supporters to attend a rally at the state Capitol to show their opposition to the President and his policies. Rep. Evan Jenkins indicated in an op-ed on the Daily Mail’s page today that he’s all-in on the anti-Obama strategy.  Over at MetroNews, Hoppy Kercheval tried hard not to go quite that far in his own commentary urging residents to welcome President Obama.

Not surprising, ignored in all of this are the many and complicated factors that play into the ongoing decline of the coal industry in this region — and the hard, cold fact that stopping various Obama EPA initiatives simply isn’t going to suddenly prompt another coal boom here.  It’s all about Obama and his “war on coal.”

Then there are those in the environmental community that want to turn the President’s visit into a chance to criticize the administration for not doing enough to stop the damage being done to mountains, streams, and people by mountaintop removal coal-mining.

Continue reading…

Court action continues in Patriot bankruptcy

Share This Article

patriotlogoPatriot Coal is back in U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Richmond, Virginia, today — this time on its motion to be released from its labor contracts with the United Mine Workers union.

As The Wall Street Journal reported, the judge yesterday indicated approval of a plan that could allow a Virginia environmental group to buy some of Patriot’s properties with the intent to reclaim them:

Judge Keith Phillips of the U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Richmond, Va., on Monday said he would sign off on the Sept. 9 auction. An affiliate of the Virginia Conservation Legacy Fund will lead off the bidding with its offer to take responsibility for $400 million in liabilities—workers’ compensation, black lung and environmental—tied to the assets.

The auction proposal had received objections from Patriot’s unsecured creditors’ committee and lender agent Barclays Bank PLC regarding the $5 million breakup fee Patriot sought to offer VCLF should it lose the bidding. However, those were resolved during the hearing with an agreement to require any winning bidder’s offer to provide enough cash to cover the fee.

The VCLF bid, which doesn’t include cash, does feature a pledge to issue new equity to Patriot’s creditors.

This month, VCLF attorney Andrew Troop told the bankruptcy court that through the deal, the nonprofit hopes to balance its quest to reclaim land through reforestation efforts while honoring the region’s tradition of coal production.

“Its desire here is to…reclaim land, operate responsibly, provide some return to creditors who otherwise it looks like would receive nothing or very little in connection with this plan, preserve jobs and enter into a new workable resolution with the United Mine Workers” of America union, he said at an Aug. 18 hearing.

 

 

Clinton campaign looks to future on coal policy

Share This Article
FILE - In this Thursday, Aug. 6, 2015, file photo, Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton listens to a home care worker during a roundtable discussion in Los Angeles. Calling for a “new college compact,” Hillary Rodham Clinton on Monday, Aug. 10, will unveil a $350 billion plan aimed at making college more affordable and reducing the crushing burden of student debt. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong, File)

In this Thursday, Aug. 6, 2015, file photo, Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton listens to a home care worker during a roundtable discussion in Los Angeles.  (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong, File)

Over the weekend, Reuters picked up on a story that we covered her late last month on Coal Tattoo, regarding Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s position on coal-mining issues. Their story started out:

In her 2008 bid for the White House, Hillary Clinton cast herself as a blue-collar Democrat who was unabashedly pro-coal, a stance that helped her beat opponent Barack Obama easily in primaries in states that produced or were reliant on coal.

Eight years later, a Reuters review of her recent campaign speeches and policy announcements shows that the great-granddaughter of a Welsh coal miner is now talking about the coal industry in the past tense.

The little-noticed shift in rhetoric speaks volumes about how the United States’ energy landscape has changed since Clinton last campaigned in 2008: oil and gas fracking have exploded and cheap natural gas has taken a huge bite out of coal.

In the intervening years the Obama administration has also proposed aggressive measures to tamp down greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuels like coal, while once-powerful coal companies like Arch Coal, which declared bankruptcy last week, have lost their political clout.

The shift by Clinton is not without significant political risk. She will have to walk a fine line in trying to please the progressive activists she needs to win her party’s nomination and working-class “swing” voters whose support will be crucial for the general election in November 2016. Ohio and Pennsylvania, in particular, have a lot of electoral votes, which are key to electing a new president.

Mindful of that, Clinton has been careful to pay tribute to the contribution coal miners have made to the American economy, but she has also made clear that they should be helped to find new jobs, and a new way of life.

Ed Rendell, former Democratic governor of Pennsylvania and Clinton ally, said an economic case for addressing climate change could resonate in his state, where the coal industry employs more than 36,000 directly and indirectly, according to the Pennsylvania Coal Alliance.

“Citizens, coal miners and executives are not dumb and they see the handwriting on the wall. Someone needs to tell them the truth and make it clear,” he said in an interview.

The next sentence seemed familiar:

Clinton’s campaign declined to comment on the shift in her coal message or how she plans to appease both environmentalists and coal workers.

Continue reading…

FILE - This Feb. 10, 2006 file photo shows the Sidney Coal Company's Coal Preparation Plant in Sidney, Ky. Sidney is a subsidiary of Alpha Natural Resources Inc. Alpha Natural Resources Inc., one of the country's biggest coal producers, became the latest in a string of coal companies to seek bankruptcy protection amid an historic shift in the electric power sector brought on by cheap natural gas prices and pollution regulations. (AP Photo/Brian Tietz, File)

This Feb. 10, 2006 file photo shows the Sidney Coal Company’s Coal Preparation Plant in Sidney, Ky. (AP Photo/Brian Tietz, File)

It is not surprising that the usual suspects among the West Virginia media have come out in full force to thunder against the final version of the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan (see here, here and here).

There’s a lot of uninformed talk about “power grabs” and “doctrinaire” regulatory moves, given the near-unlimited flexibility that EPA gives states to come up with their own compliance plans.  The Wheeling paper is fixated on why Hawaii was exempt, and Hoppy Kercheval is so eager for some “civil disobedience” that I picture him chaining himself to a computer in Washington in a patriotic attempt to keep the rule from being published in the Federal Register.

The Daily Mail editorial page is ranting about how the EPA rule is  “aimed at dramatically reducing use of fossil fuels and forcing rapid shifts toward alternative energy sources like solar and wind.” They ignore the fact that these shifts have already happened, and are continuing to happen, largely as a result of the kinds of market forces that they so love to champion. As we reported today, citing EPA’s analysis of its rule:

Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Gina McCarthy speaks in the East Room at the White House in Washington, Monday, Aug. 3, 2015, before President Barack Obama spoke about his Clean Power Plan. The president is mandating even steeper greenhouse gas cuts from U.S. power plants than previously expected, while granting states more time and broader options to comply. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

We expect that the main impact of this rule on the nation’s mix of generation will be to reduce coal-fired generation, but in an amount and by a rate that is consistent with recent historical declines in coal-fired generation. Specifically, from approximately 2005 to 2014, coal-fired generation declined at a rate that was greater than the rate of reduced coal-fired generation that we expect to result from this rulemaking from 2015 to 2030.  In addition, under this rule, the trends for all other types of generation, including natural gas-fired generation, nuclear generation, and renewable generation, will remain generally consistent with what their trends would be in the absence of this rule.

Sadly, the other trend that’s already happening is climate change. As President Obama explained in his remarks at the White House on Monday:

Climate change is no longer just about the future that we’re predicting for our children or our grandchildren; it’s about the reality that we’re living with every day, right now.

The Pentagon says that climate change poses immediate risks to our national security.  While we can’t say any single weather event is entirely caused by climate change, we’ve seen stronger storms, deeper droughts, longer wildfire seasons.  Charleston and Miami now flood at high tide.  Shrinking ice caps forced National Geographic to make the biggest change in its atlas since the Soviet Union broke apart. 

 

Continue reading…

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton speaks during a campaign event, Sunday, July 26, 2015, at Iowa State University in Ames, Iowa. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

The Hillary Clinton presidential campaign’s new climate change platform is getting a fair amount of attention coming out of the weekend. Here’s the New York Times:

Promising more than a half-billion solar panels by the end of a first term and an ambitious target of clean energy for every home in America in a decade, Hillary Rodham Clinton unveiled goals on Sunday evening to reduce the threat of climate change.

She said she would continue President Obama’s sweeping plan to limit carbon emissions from power plants, and announced targets that even push beyond current goal’s for greenhouse gases.

Mr. Obama’s proposed regulations are expected to be finalized by the Environmental Protection Agency in August, and the real work of making the changes — shutting down coal plants and increasing the number of renewable electricity sources — would fall to the next administration.

There’s more coverage here, here, here and here.

It’s interesting to compare the “fact sheet” released last night by the Clinton campaign with this text of the 2008 Clinton presidential campaign’s climate and energy plan, which included a lot of the obligatory language about various ways to accelerate the development and deployment of “clean coal technology”. This time around, the fact sheet simply promises this:

Coal Communities: Protect the health and retirement security of coalfield workers and their families and provide economic opportunities for those that kept the lights on and factories running for more than a century.