Coal Tattoo

Election Day 2016 in the coalfields

Voter stickers sit in a pile near a ballot machine at an early voting site in Albuquerque, N.M., on Thursday, Nov. 3, 2016. Bernalillo County Clerk Maggie Toulouse Oliver says more than one-third of the county's registered voters have already cast ballots and she expects turnout to reach 2008 levels when 70 percent of voters in the state's most populous county went to the polls. (AP Photo/Susan Montoya Bryan)

 

Eighteen months ago, when billionaire Jim Justice announced his run for governor, I wrote a blog post called “Coalfield Justice: West Virginia needs more than love.”  Among other things, I wrote:

Perhaps most importantly, it seems impossible to imagine that a gubernatorial election that features Jim Justice as a candidate will involve the sort of real discussion about coal’s past and our future that West Virginians so desperately need … 

At this rate,  we’re going to end up with another election that features nonsensical advertising campaigns over which candidate is more pro-coal and more anti-EPA. If the career campaign consultants have their way, every 2016 race in West Virginia will again be about President Obama, who won’t be on the ballot.

For the most part, the fall campaign played out this way. There were some minor bright spots during the May primary, when rival Democrats Jeff Kessler and Booth Goodwin tried to steer the discussion toward the future, rather than some imagined future that is wrapped up in mostly holding onto the past. But we’ve again managed to get through an election cycle by letting the coal industry and its political friends get away with making the campaign about who will do more to save an industry that is in major decline, with little hope of a significant rebound, and with precious little of the discussion focused on how to move forward with hope, not fear.

Jim JusticeIt’s not all Jim Justice’s fault, of course. And some of his opponents have shown a really remarkable bit of  hypocrisy, when they go after Justice’s environmental record while most of their campaign is about demonizing the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

But as I wrote back in May 2015, the Justice candidacy created a troubling situation. I’m sure that Justice’s backers (including Sen. Joe Manchin) thought having a coal man on the ballot would insulate the Democrats from all of the anti-Obama, anti-EPA, and “war on coal” nonsense that the Republican career campaign consultants have thrived on in recent elections.

To be fair, at one point, the Justice campaign seemed interested in talking about an important issue like energy efficiency.  But clearly, his game was more about promoting the impossible notion that West Virginia would soon be mining more coal than ever before. And when asked about climate change, Justice shows a greater lack of policy depth than even your average West Virginia politician.

What the Justice campaign really did, though, was somehow allow a campaign that turned Justice’s business practices into an issue, in all the wrong ways.

Running up large fines for environmental and safety violations is, as the Don Blankenship case showed us, really part of the business model for the coal industry. While it’s true that Justice seems to have a much bigger habit than other operators of simply not paying off those fines in a timely fashion, the underlying issue — that violating safety and environmental rules is so commonplace and accepted in the mining industry — should be by far the greater concern (interestingly, in fact, the NPR story published toward the end of the campaign reported that Justice mines with delinquent federal fines continue to have worst-than-average safety records, something that was frequently lost in the local retelling of the Howard Berkes story).

With Justice in the race, the focus then became his failure to pay his bills. That’s a perfectly legitimate issue — and one that Justice’s backers, including Sen. Manchin, should have been more concerned about — but shouldn’t we all be focused more on insisting that coal companies follow the law, on saying that any number of violations that put workers and the environment at risk is simply no longer something we’re willing to look the other way for in the name of a few jobs?

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I think I’ve gotten two of these anti-Jim Justice fliers so far, both mailed to the house by the Republican Governors Association’s PAC.

“Billionaire Jim Justice Polluted Our Environment,” they scream, before listing environmental violations at Justice’s mining operations and noting a lawsuit against the Democratic gubernatorial candidate by the Sierra Club.

This is how silly this election is — certainly in West Virginia, but also elsewhere in the coalfields and beyond.

It’s true that Justice’s company has had some run-ins with government regulators over his compliance with environmental rules — and not just at his coal mines. Justice had some problems not so long ago with dam construction at one of his resorts. And of course more recently, there was a pretty significant penalty to resolve water quality violations cited by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

As we’ve written here before, though, these kinds of violations are — unfortunately — pretty routine in the coal industry, where violations of environmental standards and worker health and safety rules are, really, part of the basic business plan. Most of the major coal producers in the state have entered into similar deals with EPA. The only difference with this one (other than it involving a gubernatorial candidate’s company) is that the EPA required some specific financial commitments, given … well, probably given the well-documented pattern of Justice not to pay his bills.

Since the local Republicans so desperately want every single election this cycle to be about President Obama and the EPA, and their supposed effort to eliminate the coal industry, shouldn’t the GOP be lining up with Jim Justice here, to protest the outrageous overreach of those bureaucrats who want the Clean Water Act enforced, and don’t think the coal industry should be above the law?

UMWA presidential endorsement ‘highly unlikely’

FILE - In this Sunday, Oct. 9, 2016, file photo, Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump and Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton speak during the second presidential debate at Washington University in St. Louis. The contentiousness of the presidential election is spilling into some workplaces. And even when there’s no rancor, more time is spent on election chatter than in the past. Rather than try to control what people are saying, owners should focus on whether the work is getting done in an atmosphere that’s not hostile. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky, File)

 

Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump and Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton speak during the second presidential debate at Washington University in St. Louis. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky, File)

Despite some of the recent talk about coal and energy issues in the presidential race between Republican Donald Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton, it seems that the United Mine Workers of America union’s political arm is going to stay out of the fray.

UMWA spokesman Phil Smith told me this morning that an endorsement of either candidate is “highly unlikely” at this point.

So far, Smith said, no state UMWA political councils have recommended such an endorsement to the union’s national political council, which is made up of members of the UMWA International Executive Board. That national council is the body that would vote on any presidential endorsement, Smith said.

In the UMWA’s political work, the endorsement process starts with area political councils, which make recommendations to state councils on state races. State councils then make recommendations to the national council for federal races. But Smith noted that all of the state council meetings for this election have already occurred. There’s still a chance of some movement that would result in a national council vote, but again, Smith said that is “highly unlikely.”

Readers may recall that, after endorsing Democrat Barack Obama in 2008, the mine workers did not make a presidential endorsement in 2012. And as we discussed four years ago, a non-endorsement isn’t necessarily out of the ordinary for the UMWA.

This time around, the much-misconstrued comments from Secretary Clinton about mining jobs and the future of coal country — among other issues — certainly has generated significant support among active UMWA members for Mr. Trump. But remember that union political councils also include retired UMWA members, many of whom may be focused on the union’s troubled pension and health-care benefit plans — an issue that Secretary Clinton has talked repeatedly about, but Trump has ignored.

‘One of the good coal operators’

Jim Justice

 

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

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

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

The prepared statement from President Roberts went on:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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

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.”

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Jim Justice

 

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

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

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

The story continues:

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

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

Importantly, the investigation also reports:

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

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

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

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Jim Justice

 

Maybe we should just be glad that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency put out its press release on the water pollution deal with Jim Justice’s companies fairly early on a Friday afternoon, instead of waiting until just before 5 p.m. And oddly, inquiries about this issue were answered far more promptly — and with actual straight answers — than anything else I’ve dealt with the Obama EPA about over the last eight years.

It is a pretty significant story, and it seems hard to imagine it’s not going to quickly become part of the back-and-forth of this year’s gubernatorial campaign. Republican Bill Cole’s people will point to it with statements like this:

Mountain Party candidate Charlotte Pritt’s followers will say the whole thing just shows how Justice is just another coal operator and there’s no difference between Cole and Justice (for those who really are trying to understand if there are differences, former Gazette-Mail political reporter David Gutman gave that story a pretty good shot here).

Just to clear up the facts:  The feds didn’t fine Justice $5 million. The fine in this case was $900,000. His companies are required to put up a $4.5 million letter of credit to ensure funding of new pollution control efforts. EPA says in all those efforts will cost $5 million, and Justice has already spent $500,00. So that’s where the $6 million figure in our story comes from. You can read the consent decree here and the EPA complaint here.

It’s fascinating to watch people who are more interested in partisan politics than in environmental protection (or workplace safety compliance) chatter about this particular story on Jim Justice. Where are their cries that the jackbooted thugs from EPA should let little poor ol’ Jim alone? I’m confused — do we want a strong federal enforcement agency to keep coal industry politics from controlling things, or should the feds leave us alone to run things as we see fit?

Readers who follow these things more closely than the career campaign consultants do will know that these kind of settlements between EPA and major coal producers have not been unusual things. EPA has reached deals in recent years with CONSOL Energy (here and here), Arch Coal (here and hereAlpha Natural Resources, and Patriot Coal, among others. And yes, most of the time, the state Department of Environmental Protection takes part with EPA as a co-plaintiff, a move that allows it some say in the litigation and some share of the fine. In this instance, WVDEP could have pocketed maybe $90,000 from the settlement, if the one-half of the fine going to states had been split five ways instead of four.

Going back through those settlements, the only one I see in West Virginia that the WVDEP didn’t take part in was the one back in 2008 with Massey Energy (see original coverage of that here, here, here and here).

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Coming clean about the Clean Power Plan

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And here’s The Washington Post:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.

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Really, Hoppy? ‘Blood money’?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Putting politics ahead of helping the coalfields

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Photo by Sam Owens — Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin (center) and other state and federal officials announced federal grants for West Virginia in Huntington on Wednesday.

There was good news for the coalfields coming out of Huntington today, with the announcement of nearly $40 million in new money to help diversify the communities hard hit by the long-expected downturn in the mining industry.

The Gazette-Mail’s Andrew Brown was there and had the story:

Millions of dollars are being disbursed to groups in West Virginia and other coalfield communities throughout the country as part of President Barrack Obama’s POWER initiative.

State and federal officials gathered in Huntington Wednesday to announce more than $38.8 million in funding for groups in West Virginia, Kentucky, Ohio, Virginia, Pennsylvania and Alabama.

Groups in the Mountain State will receive around $16.4 million, or more than 40 percent of the federal money, which will help advance efforts in education, infrastructure improvements, business development, manufacturing expansions and workforce training.

Jason Walsh, a White House policy adviser, noted at today’s event that there’s been bipartisan support for this kind of federal assistance. This bipartisanship, once difficult to find on these issues, is especially key on some of the administration’s big-ticket items — like billions of dollars to rescue the United Mine Workers pension and health-care plans and to pump more money back into cleaning up abandoned coal mines, legacy liabilities that, if not fixed, could forever hold back coalfield communities here. Support from Reps Evan Jenkins and David McKinley, both R-W.Va., is a great example.

To their credit, Rep. Jenkins and Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin didn’t go overboard in trying to use any mention of Obama and coal to repeat tired, worn-out advertising slogans about EPA.

Rep. Jenkins said in his formal statement today:

These grants are critical to helping revitalize communities hurt by the downturn in coal. The Coalfield Development Corporation has developed innovative programs to help workers learn new skills and start their own small businesses, and I know this grant will help them offer their important services to even more entrepreneurs and communities. The Hobet mine site has unlimited potential for economic growth, and this grant will allow the state to develop a strategic plan to make this potential a reality.

And Gov. Tomblin said:

With the downturn in the coal industry, we in the state and federal governments owe it to those who have lost jobs through no fault of their own to do everything possible to create new economic growth. These POWER grants represent a positive step toward that goal. The projects being funded envision a West Virginia where promising new job opportunities are a reality. I am especially proud that the Hobet project is being supported as we continue planning for the best ways turn that site into an economic engine for Southern West Virginia.

But, unfortunately, then there’s the joint statement issued by Sens. Joe Manchin and Shelley Moore Capito. Neither of them could tone it down for a day — even a day when the administration was handling out millions of dollars to their constituents.

Here’s Sen. Capito:

Years of onerous regulations that have targeted our state, have put many West Virginians out of work and hurt local communities. For more than a year, I have worked to ensure that economic development officials, including Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Economic Development Jay Williams and the Economic Development Administration, clearly understand the needs of West Virginia.

And here’s Sen. Manchin:

West Virginia has been devastated by this Administration’s harmful regulations and we must continue to fight to keep our coal jobs and to make sure every out-of-work coal miner has access to meaningful job opportunities.

And West Virginians wonder why we have a hard time being taken seriously on the national stage.

Trump keeps pandering to the coal miners

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)

 

Certainly, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump’s statements about the coal industry aren’t the comments that are getting the most attention the last couple of days.  Still, for coalfield residents thinking ahead to this fall’s campaign — and not only to the presidential race, but others as well — looking at what Trump is trying to sell is worthwhile.

Chris Mooney at The Washington Post revisits it in a piece headlined, “Dear Donald Trump: This is what is really dismantling the coal industry.”

As Mooney notes, Trump talked about coal during his big economic speech Monday in Detroit:

Also critical to our economic renewal will be energy reform.

The Obama-Clinton Administration has blocked and destroyed millions of jobs through their anti-energy regulations, while raising the price of electricity for both families and businesses.

As a result of recent Obama EPA actions coal-fired power plants across Michigan have either shut down entirely or undergone expensive conversions. The Obama-Clinton war on coal has cost Michigan over 50,000 jobs. Hillary Clinton says her plan will “put a lot of coal companies and coal miners out of business.”

We will put our coal miners and steel workers back to work.

Clinton not only embraces President Obama’s job-killing energy restrictions but wants to expand them, including going after oil and natural gas production that employs some 10 million Americans.

But, citing the latest U.S. Energy Information Administration data, Mooney explains:

Sure, some Obama era regulations have been bad news for the industry. More broadly, coal is in a uniquely poor position, among energy sources, in the new environmental era that the world is now entering. Any utility company making decisions about its future energy mix will be thinking about this.

But equally bad news for coal has come in the form of  very cheap natural gas, which has arrived in this country precisely because the fracking-driven shale gas industry — with which Trump is also seemingly aligned — has thrived during Obama’s presidency.

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Jim Justice championing energy efficiency?

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

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

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

Justice said:

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

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

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

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

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

Democratic platform opposes mountaintop removal

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A story is making the rounds today that brings the focus back again to the potential public health impacts of mountaintop removal coal mining.  Writing for The Conversation website, Roberta Attanasio, a Georgia State University biologist, explains:

The U.S. coal industry is in rapid decline, a shift marked not only by the bankruptcy of many mine operators in coal-rich Appalachia but also by a legacy of potential environmental and social disasters.

As mines close, states, the federal government and taxpayers are left wondering about the costs of cleaning up the abandoned land, especially at mountaintop removal sites, the most destructive type of mining. As coal companies go bankrupt, this has left states concerned taxpayers may have to pick up the environmental cleanup costs.

But there are also societal costs related to mountaintop removal mining’s impact on health and mental health. As an immunologist, I reviewed the research literature for specific effects of mountaintop removal mining on the immune system. I did not identify any pertinent information. However, I did find plenty of clues suggesting that health and mental health issues will pose enormous challenges to the affected coal communities, and will linger for decades.

At the same time, a press release from the Alliance for Appalachia pointed out something to me that I wasn’t aware of — this language from the Democratic Party platform:

 

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s more via a CBS News Twitter feed:

Will coal country focus on hope or fear?

Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton give a thumbs up after taking the stage to make her acceptance speech during the final day of the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia , Thursday, July 28, 2016. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

 

Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton didn’t provide as much mention of coal issues in her acceptance speech as former President Bill Clinton or President Barack Obama did earlier this week.

There was this brief mention:

My primary mission as President will be to create more opportunity and more good jobs with rising wages right here in the United States…

From my first day in office to my last.

Especially in places that for too long have been left out and left behind.

From our inner cities to our small towns, from Indian Country to Coal Country.

From communities ravaged by addiction to regions hollowed out by plant closures.

You can read the whole speech for yourself, or watch it here:

But there’s a tone underlying the election that we’re heading into that is in some ways far more important for the coalfields and our future than even the specific policy differences (in which the Clinton campaign offers a detailed plan for diversification and Donald Trump offers impossible dreams of the next boom that will never come).

I’m talking about the difference between fear and hope.

Anyone who watched the Republican convention or who pays any attention to the career campaign consultants in West Virginia knows that one side wants to make this all about fear. That’s what all of the “war on coal” and “our way of life” stuff plays into — the fears of hard-working coalfield residents.

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

And to those who say climate risk is a far off problem, I can tell you that I have hunted the same woods in Western Pennsylvania my entire life and climate change is happening now—I see it in the summer droughts that kill the trees, the warm winter nights when flowers bloom in January, the snows that fall less frequently and melt more quickly.

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

When these folks hear “End Coal,” it sounds like a threat to destroy the value of our homes, to shut our schools and churches, to drive us away from the place our parents and grandparents are buried, to take away the work that for more than a hundred years has made us who we are.

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

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

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Former President Bill Clinton speaks during the second day of the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia , Tuesday, July 26, 2016. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

 

For those who may have missed it last night, here’s the portion of former President Bill Clinton’s Democratic National Convention speech where he talks about West Virginia’s coal communities:

And you should elect her because she will never quit when the going gets tough. She will never quit on you. She sent me in this primary to West Virginia, where she knew we were going to lose, to look those coal miners in the eye and say, “I am down here because Hillary sent me to tell you that if you really think you can get the economy back that you had 50 years ago, have at it, vote for whoever you want to. But if she wins, she is coming back for you to take you along on the ride to America’s future.”

You can read the speech here or watch it (start at about the 39:00 ) mark:

 

 

Can Trump save coal and support natural gas?

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The view that electing Donald Trump as president will save West Virginia’s coal industry and return us to mining’s glory days was on display again in today’s Gazette-Mail, in a piece by David Gutman about Sen. Shelley Moore Capito’s support for Trump. Here’s the bottom line:

“I am looking at our state, my state, that’s the principal-view lens at which I’m viewing this election,” Capito said in an interview at Charleston’s historic Craik-Patton House on Monday. “I mean, I’ve lived in this state my entire life. I’m 62 years old. I’ve never seen such pessimism, lack of vision for a future, really concern about where is that next generation going to go.”

“I’m laying a lot of this at the doorstep — not totally, but a lot of this at the doorstep — of the policies of the last eight years,” Capito said. “I can’t, I cannot stomach that. For where I live, it’s not a good future.”

In many ways, West Virginia weathered the financial crisis and ensuing recession better than most states in the last years of the George W. Bush administration and the first years of Obama’s presidency. More recently, though, West Virginia’s economy has been in a tailspin as the population shrinks and ages, fossil fuel prices plummet and a combination of cheap natural gas, depleted seams and federal regulation decimate the coal industry.

But a couple recent pieces by writer Tina Casey at CleanTechnica.com have raised some interesting questions about all of this.

First, there was a piece headlined, “The Donald Trump Coal Plan Vs. The Donald Trump Fracking Plan,” which started out like this:

Industry analysts widely agree that coal consumption in the US has been declining in recent years, primarily because of competition from low cost natural gas for electricity generation. Renewable sources have been a far less significant factor, and they are only just beginning to weigh in more.

Low cost gas is a side effect of the domestic shale fracking boom, which was touched off by a loophole in environmental regulations created under the Bush Administration.

So, blame President Bush for the decline in domestic coal consumption. The loophole has crippled the Obama Administration’s efforts to bring the fracking industry under the regulatory umbrella of the EPA, and this lack of oversight has helped to keep gas costs down.

The piece continued:

Longstanding federal restrictions on exporting natural gas have also played a role in the domestic gas glut, though the Obama Administration has made some cautious steps toward enabling more exports.

Coal supporters like Capito have been especially fond of nailing President Obama’s energy policies for the decline of coal in West Virginia and other states in the Appalachia region, but the fact is that Appalachian coal faces a triple whammy. In addition to new competition from natural gas for the domestic market, it also has to compete with coal from Wyoming’s Powder River basin, and compete globally with Australia and other coal-exporting countries.

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