Coal Tattoo

Donald Trump and the coal miners

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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.

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Hillary Clinton on Blankenship

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Blankenship Clinton Williamson

Photo by Daniel Desrochers – Former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship stands outside the Hillary Clinton event in Williamson on Monday.

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s campaign has issued a statement late this morning about the appearance of former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship among the protesters outside Clinton’s event yesterday in Williamson. Here’s the statement from Clinton West Virginia State Director and Huntington Native Talley Sergent:

It was a pretty outrageous sight to see Don Blankenship, of all people, apparently rallying against Hillary Clinton’s plans and commitment to help our coal communities. As President, Hillary Clinton will prioritize federal legislation to make sure the likes of Don Blankenship can never again get away with showing such blatant disregard for our miners and their safety.

Our campaign is proud not to have Don Blankenship’s endorsement. If Donald Trump wants to accept his support, then he owes a serious explanation to the families of our miners we lost at Upper Big Branch and the people of West Virginia.

Coal miner Chris Steele holds a sign supporting Donald Trump outside a Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton event in Williamson, W.V., Monday, May 2, 2016. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

Coal miner Chris Steele holds a sign supporting Donald Trump outside a Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton event in Williamson, W.Va., Monday, May 2, 2016. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

You’ve got to give Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton some credit, I guess. It would have probably been easier — especially at this stage of the campaign — to ignore places like Mingo County, West Virginia.

There’s plenty of media coverage already about the Democratic Party’s problems in the coalfields. What’s the upside to basically giving your opposition — not only in the November presidential race, but in races for control of Congress, state legislatures and governor’s offices — a handy pep rally?

Maybe the Clinton people have some polling that suggests they have some kind of shot to win here in the general election, though most people who follow such things seem to think otherwise. Maybe, as Sen. Joe Manchin was pitching the last few days, the Clintons really just care about showing their face in places that might otherwise think they’re just being left behind.

And maybe the Democrats generally really want to put some force behind the various plans — President Obama has one, so does Secretary Clinton and so does Sen. Bernie Sanders (so do Republicans like Reps. David McKinley and Evan Jenkins, by the way) — to try to deal with some of the coal industry’s massive legacy liabilities as part of a broader effort to find some path forward for communities whose main industry is in a steep decline.

It’s good to keep plugging those proposals. The huge financial problems facing the health-care and pension plans of the United Mine Workers of America have to be dealt with for anything good to happen in the coalfields. Finding a way to pump more money from the federal Abandoned Mine Land program to coal-mine cleanups would help improve the environment and public health here, while spurring job creation.

But aren’t the Democrats missing something? Shouldn’t they even just once in a while make a larger point that life with coal as your only industry isn’t as rosy as some of the revisionist histories make it sound? Mines blow up. Slurry dams collapse. Workers die a slow, agonizing death from black lung. Pollution of the air, land and water makes people sick.

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Unwanted: The Clintons and the coalfields

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Photo by Chris Dorst – Trump supporters protest across from Logan Middle School, Sunday, before Bill Clinton’s arrival for a rally.

For the last four or five years, one of the rally cries among the “War on Coal” crowd has been that it was unfair for the Obama administration to be putting in place new environmental rules on coal-fired power plants without coming to the coalfields to hear from people whose “way of life” might be affected.

On this blog, I’ve actually made this point myself — and agreed that Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., was right to push for a visit and a public hearing by U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy.

So naturally, when the leading Democratic presidential candidate’s campaign plans a visit to Logan, the local establishment puts out the word that former President Bill Clinton isn’t welcome in their town.  And local supporters of Republican front-runner Donald Trump show up to put their best foot forward in seeing that the region’s economic concerns get a fair hearing.

Of course, one of the major problems here is the flawed notion that if the EPA just dropped its efforts to do something about climate change, the coal industry would suddenly rebound.

Interestingly, reporting from yesterday’s events by the Gazette-Mail’s David Gutman showed that while some in Logan County cling to this hopeless idea, others are more thoughtful about the situation their community finds itself in:

Kevin Stone works for National Armature and Machine, a motor and water pump service business in Holden, Logan County.

“They think this is just hurting the coal jobs, but it’s killing everyone,” he said. “My family’s lived in West Virginia for generations, I’ve been a Democrat all my life and now I’m never voting for a Democrat.”

Arnold Killen, of Harts in Lincoln County, held a Trump sign outside the Logan rally. Did he think Trump would bring back the coal industry?

Killen shrugged, “Well, he didn’t say he was going to destroy it.”

Inside the cafeteria, where the crowd ultimately drowned out protests, there was far more Clinton support.

“I think she’s good for women and children,” Marsha Bryant, of Holden, said. “I happen to be a woman and I think it’s time.”

Anita Weyenberg, Bryant’s sister and another Clinton supporter, noted that they were both daughters of a coal miner.

“Daddy hated the fact that his kids wanted to go in the mines,” she said. “The mines are gone. They’re not coming back. I think it’s time to move on.”

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Jim Justice doubles down on climate change denial

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Jim Justice

It’s not enough that Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jim Justice is tossing around nonsense about how electing him will assure that West Virginia “mines more coal … than has ever been mined before.” Now, Justice is just tossing science on climate change totally under the bus. Just look at what he told the Beckley paper:

Until we have really accurate data to prove (that humans contribute) I don’t think we need to blow our legs off on a concept. I welcome the scientific approach to it and the knowledge.  I would not sit here and say, ‘absolutely now, there’s no such thing’ or I would no way on Earth say there is such a thing. I believe there’s an awful lot of scientist that say, ‘no, no, no, this is just smoke and mirrors.’ I welcome the discussion, but I don’t know, I just don’t know.

Until we have really accurate data? Smoke and mirrors? Despite what he says, it’s clear that Justice doesn’t welcome the scientific approach to this issue.

New Goodwin Blankenship ad: ‘Take it back, Jim’

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Take it Back Jim from Goodwin for WV on Vimeo.

It looked like that maybe Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jim Justice was going to wisely steer clear of bringing the discussion in the campaign back around the the prosecution of Don Blankenship — or anything that would remind voters of Justice’s own mine safety problems, like his history of not paying his U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration fines.

But rival candidate Booth Goodwin, who has U.S. Atttorney prosecuted Blankenship — isn’t going to let Justice just walk away from this one.

This morning, the Goodwin campaign unveiled a new ad (it’s being distributed on social media, at least) featuring Dr. Judy Jones Peterson, whose brother, Dean Jones, died at Blankenship’s Upper Big Branch Mine. Here’s what Dr. Peterson says:

I don’t really understand why Mr. Justice would step out against the integrity of this incredible prosecution team. He of all people as a coal mining operator should understand the plight of coal miners, but I think unfortunately that the plight he understands best is the plight of Don Blankenship.

As some readers may recall, Dr. Peterson had previously asked that Jim Justice issue a public apology after Justice questioned the Blankenship prosecution.

Aside from the gubernatorial campaign, one potential impact of this strategy by the Goodwin team is to give more ammunition to Blankenship’s defense lawyers, who certainly want to make an issue in their appeal of the politics they say drove the entire prosecution in the first place. So far, this argument from Blankenship’s lawyers didn’t get any traction with U.S. District Judge Irene Berger or much sympathy from the jury — but who knows what might happen going forward.

On the other hand, it’s certainly different to hear a candidate for governor in West Virginia campaign on the fact that he prosecuted a coal company CEO for putting miner safety and health at risk.

I’ve asked the Justice campaign and the Blankenship defense team if they’d care to comment on this new ad, and will update readers if I hear back from them.

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.

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‘One of the good coal operators’

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Jim Justice

Last week, after U.S. District Judge Irene Berger sentenced Don Blankenship to the maximum penalty allowed by law — one year in jail and a $250,000 fine — Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jim Justice had little to say about the historic events of the day. His campaign spokesman issued this statement:

What’s important today are the feelings of the families who lost loved ones. I hope all of the families have the opportunity to be heard on whether or not they feel justice was served.

But it sounds like Justice has decided to add to those comments, at least according to this story from WOAY:

I think we spent an ungodly amount of money within our state to probably keep Booth Goodwin in the limelight and end up with a misdemeanor charge. If that’s all we are going to end up with, why did we spend that much money to do that?

This comes a day after Justice’s gubernatorial campaign was touting a new campaign ad in which United Mine Workers of America President Cecil Roberts — in what seemed like quite an awkward phrase — called Justice “one of the good coal operators.”

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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.

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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.

Importantly:

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.

Still:

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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Who really runs West Virginia? (Part 2)

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COAL TRAIN

As this year’s session of the West Virginia Legislature grinds on, it continues to become clear who is really running our state — and honestly, it’s not just about political parties (though surely, the parties increasingly have a chance to show us what they really stand for in these final weeks).

Two things that are moving forward up at the statehouse as I write give us the true picture of our state’s politics.

First, there’s the bill that emerged just yesterday — originated in committee as deadlines loom — to slash West Virginia’s coal severance tax. This is a bill that’s been promoted by the West Virginia Coal Association and appears based at least partly on the positions advocated by Murray Energy, though Murray CEO Bob Murray has publicly called for an even bigger increase than the reduction from 5 percent to 3 percent included in this legislation:

Political platitudes and lip service regarding the importance of coal jobs in the State and support for them will not save these family livelihoods this time. Only immediate action to reduce the State’s tax on coal extraction will help protect them … the West Virginia coal severance tax must be reduced from five percent (5%) of the gross sales price of its coal to no more than two percent (2%) very quickly.

It appears — at least from what’s available online from the Legislature — that the bill currently at issue (and ready for second reading today in the Senate) would phase in a reduction from 5 percent to 4 percent starting in mid-2018 and then to 3 percent in mid-2019.

This morning, Murray Energy spokesman Gary Broadbent had this statement about the current bill:

The legislation introduced yesterday is very much needed. Indeed, all of the proceeds from the coal severance tax reduction will go directly to our electric utility customers, through the language of our coal sales contracts, and none of it to any coal company. This will allow the jobs of West Virginia coal miners to be more competitive against coal from other states and against the increased use of natural gas to generate electricity.

The folks over at the West Virginia Center for Budget and Policy took a hard look at the Coal Association’s report on cutting the severance tax, and concluded, among other things:

There’s little evidence to support a severance tax cut for coal as a tool to increase production and employment. Overall, the state has little ability to influence the forces affecting the coal industry, be they competition from natural gas, environmental regulations, productivity, or transportation issues. The numbers in the Coal Association’s report are entirely unrealistic, which is probably why, despite their report, they don’t deny that a severance tax cut probably won’t help.

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Who really runs West Virginia?

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FILE- In this Oct. 6, 2015, file photo, Superintendent Jackie Ratliff, a coal miner, holds coal running through a processing plant in Welch, W.Va. For the long-suffering communities that depend on coal, a recent Supreme Court ruling temporarily blocking greenhouse gas reductions was seen as a rare victory. But coal country residents say the reprieve may only be temporary as utilities turn away from coal generation and production continues to slide. (AP Photo/David Goldman, File)

The talk of the town here in Charleston remains out ongoing legislative session, and there’s rightfully a lot of talk about some of the initiatives — right to work, hating gay people, etc. — that the new Republican majority seems to think are more important than the current budget crisis and the real long-term challenges facing our state.

But I’ve written before about how West Virginia’s public policies aren’t really governed by Democrats or Republicans. That’s not who has been running our state of all these years.

If you don’t believe me, I would encourage you to consider a few happenings up at the statehouse these last few days.

First look at the vote on SB508, the bill to protect oil and gas drillers from certain kinds of lawsuits by residents who think their new neighbors aren’t so much fun after all. It passed 20-12, with support from some Democrats — like Kanawha County Senator Corey Palumbo, who seems surprisingly irony-impaired about the whole thing.

Second — and even more interestingly — look at the vote on SB565, the legislation to weaken the state Department of Environmental Protection permitting of natural gas drilling.  DEP Secretary Randy Huffman — hardly an enemy of the natural gas industry — doesn’t think this bill is a good idea.  But only one Democrat — Sen. Jeff Kessler — voted against it.

Some Democratic leaders would like to make it sound like they are with the surface landowners, citing concerns about the “forced pooling” legislation.  So why did SB508 get its share of “no” votes, but SB565 face opposition only from Sen. Kessler?

Well, that’s because the trial lawyers are against SB508 and have generated attention and opposition. But SB565 is arguably more important to surface landowners — it’s aimed at putting permits in place that would prevent damage and nuisance for residents before they occur, not just protecting the right to sue after it happens.

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Obama to continue push for coalfield aid

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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.”

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Tomblin: Time to reinvest in W.Va. coalfields

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State of the StateTonight’s State of the State address from West Virginia Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin contained what were certainly the most straightforward comments from the governor on the state of the state’s coal industry:

… We cannot ignore the unprecedented shift that has taken place in our state and our nation. Forces beyond our control have severely damaged our coal industry, and even the most optimistic among us realize it is unlikely coal will ever reach production levels of the past.

Pretty strong stuff, especially for Governor Tomblin. Right before that, though, he had said this:

Despite the difficult times we find ourselves in, West Virginia remains the fourth largest producer of electricity in the country, and I believe our coal industry will continue to support our families well into the future.

It’s true that the coal industry in West Virginia isn’t going to disappear overnight or anytime soon — but it’s still a problem that political leaders feel they need to balance any talk about the downward spiral with hope that it really won’t be quite all that bad.

The governor went on to say more about coal and about mining communities:

For generations, our miners unearthed the coal used to produce the low-cost energy that fueled this country’s Industrial Revolution – one that remains unmatched anywhere in the world. This nation owes these West Virginians a debt of gratitude and we are ready to cash in on that substantial IOU.

And he outlined several proposals for helping struggling coal communities.

First, there was this:

This fall, we submitted an application to the National Disaster Resilience Competition seeking more than $140 million in funding from the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development. This competition has the potential to help six counties in our southern coalfields adjust, adapt and advance their communities.

If we’re successful, these federal funds will help us rebuild aging infrastructure, promote land use planning and hazard reduction efforts and stimulate housing and economic development in areas outside of the region’s floodplains.

And then there was the big one:

We are also proposing to develop the largest industrial site in West Virginia history at the former Hobet surface mine in Boone and Lincoln counties. With 12,000 acres located just off Corridor G, this site is large enough to fit virtually every major economic development project in recent history – including Toyota, Procter & Gamble, Gestamp,  Macy’s, Amazon and more – with thousands of acres left over.

We know this is a major undertaking, and with the help of local landowners Marshall University, West Virginia University and the Virginia Conservation Legacy Fund,  we are working together to find new uses for this site while mining activity continues.

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Tomblin

Photo by Tom Hindman

In a few hours, we’ll hear from Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin about his views on the State of the State and his plans for dealing with a budget deficit and for his final year as governor.

Already, though, the governor and his staff  have done a lot to telegraph a bit of what he may say regarding the coal industry. In an interview with the Gazette-Mail’s Phil Kabler for Sunday’s paper, for example, there was this:

Tomblin hopes a myriad of job training opportunities directed at southern West Virginia, particularly for laid-off miners and their families, will eventually lead to a revitalization of that hard-hit region.

“The mining jobs may not be returning, and you can always go back to that if they do, but it’s good to have a little college training under your belt,” he said. “Coal in southern West Virginia has had highs and lows for years, and it seems to be hit particularly hard this time.”

And then in today’s paper, there was this from communications director Chris Stadelman:

He has some exciting new things, not only in developing our workforce, but in diversifying our economy.

It will obviously be encouraging to hear Governor Tomblin talking more directly and — perhaps, forcefully — about the need to diversify coalfield economies here. But two things remain bothersome about the context in which he’s doing it.

First, there’s this business about how “the mining jobs may not be returning” and how “you can always go back to that if they do”. I’m not aware of any forecasts that suggest any grand resurgence of the coal industry in Southern West Virginia. It’s popular among the industry’s political supporters to suggest all manner of actions by elected officials — and the end of the Obama administration — might make that happen. But Governor Tomblin isn’t doing anybody in the coalfields any favors by tipping his rhetoric even a little bit in that direction.

Second, there’s this idea that’s been reported several times about how the state’s current budget problems were somehow unanticipated. When former Gov. Joe Manchin was winning political points with business leaders by cutting their taxes, there were those who warned this would happen. When forecast after forecast from coal experts projected declining production in Southern West Virginia, there were those who warned this would happen. And even the current low price of natural gas was something that wasn’t entirely unanticipated. State officials knew it was projected to drop — it just dropped even more than they thought.

Maybe the governor’s rhetoric and context will change dramatically tonight. After all, former Sens. Robert C. Byrd and Jay Rockefeller both made strong statements about West Virginia’s relationship to coal and the need to reassess the industry late in their careers. Maybe Governor Tomblin is going to call on his fellow West Virginians to “embrace the future.”

Governor Tomblin, though, faces a Republican-controlled Legislature that is itching for fights with Democrats and unions about worn-out issues like right-to-work and prevailing wage, and even about who should be sitting in the state Senate. Coal industry lobbyists, meanwhile, are considering a push to lower mining taxes.

It doesn’t take a political genius to know that a ton of time over the next 60 days will be spent on political fights that don’t get the state anywhere.

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.

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‘Big ideas’: Jim Justice on climate change

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Photo by Christian Tyler Randolph

Here’s one of the more interesting parts of David Gutman’s story today from a long interview with Democratic gubernatorial candidate (and billionaire coal operator) Jim Justice:

Justice denies the scientific consensus that climate change is happening and is caused by human activity.

“There’s documentation that would give one concern, and I don’t think you should ignore that,” he said. “At the same time, I think there’s an awful lot of research that still should be done.

“I surely wouldn’t sit here and say I am a believer in global warming, but I wouldn’t sit here and say that I am not concerned.”

President Obama on helping the coalfields

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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.