Coal Tattoo

Sen. Capito’s $15,000 worth of regulations

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Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., looks out from the podium during a sound check before the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Monday, July 18, 2016. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Last night, West Virginia Sen. Shelley Moore Capito got a prime-time spot speaking at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, and much of what she talked about was really no surprise. As the Gazette-Mail’s David Gutman reported:

Sen. Shelley Moore Capito assailed the environmental regulations of President Barack Obama and the email practices of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in urging the Republican National Convention to “turn the tide” to elect a Republican president in November …

She cited the gaffe infamous in West Virginia when Clinton, in describing her own plan to invest and diversify coalfield communities, said, “We’re going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business” … “She has promised to devastate communities and families across coal country,” Capito said. “Hillary Clinton understands coal miners and blue collar workers about as well as she understands secure emails.”

Interestingly, though, Sen. Capito also threw this in, as Gutman reported:

Policy-wise, Capito’s focus was largely on federal regulations, which she said cost each American household $15,000 a year, repeating the figure four times. That number comes from the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a conservative think-tank, which admits it is a “back of the envelope” calculation that does not account for any for the benefits of regulations.

For more about that dubious number, check out this Fact Checker post — from 1 1/2 years ago — by Glenn Kessler at The Washington Post:

The factoid comes from an annual report, Ten Thousand Commandments, put out by the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a free-market group founded in 1984 to combat what it considered excessive government regulation. So already you have to take the analysis with a large grain of salt. Indeed, the report is billed as “An Annual Snapshot of the Federal Regulatory State.”

The $15,000 is derived from an estimate that regulations cost at least $1.8 trillion a year …  (This number is calculated in a CEI working paper titled “The Tip of the Costberg.”) Then $1.8 trillion is simply divided by the number of American households. Presto, each household “pays” $14,974 annually in a hidden regulatory tax.

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Will Congress protect retired coal miners?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Jim Justice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Election Day in coal country: A race to nowhere?

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

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

Across West Virginia, the polls have opened. Primary Election Day 2016 has begun.  Now we vote.

Some things are likely decided already. It’s all but certain that Republican Donald Trump will face Democrat Hillary Clinton in the presidential race in November. The GOP candidate for governor in the fall will be Senate President Bill Cole. By the end of tonight, we’ll know who Cole will face from the three-candidate Democratic field.

It’s hard to imagine the primary election results providing much progress in addressing the serious problems communities face in the ongoing decline of the mining industry. In many ways, the discussion here is mired in the same place it was four years ago, when I wrote a post called “Before tomorrow: Election Day in coal country” on the day of the 2012 General Election.

Today’s primary doesn’t free us of campaign signs and pollster calls. It just sets us up for more of them between now and November.

Importantly, though, the candidates who will carry on to the General Election will in many ways set the tone for the political discourse and community discussion about what we collectively should be trying to do to make the coalfields a better place to live, work, and raise families.

It’s clear that the presidential race will feature Trump’s pandering efforts to convince West Virginia coal miners that they’ll all be back to work soon enough, after he eliminates the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and all those nasty rules and regulations. Secretary Clinton offers at least some hope that she will try to focus coalfield voters on huge problems that loom, such as the financial crisis with the United Mine Workers of America’s health-care benefits and pension plan — and just as important a dose of realism about the need to ramp up efforts to diversify coalfield economies.

Unfortunately, the Clinton campaign has already given Trump and its friends in the coal industry the only soundbite they really need. We’ll be hearing it over and over and over and over. And one danger is that Secretary Clinton will buckle under on this, and start talking more and more about “clean coal” and carbon capture — catchphrases that only generate the same false hope that has the Trump campaign so popular with some of our state’s coal miners.

Whether Clinton has a chance in West Virginia — and whether West Virginia will turn out to be important at all in the national election for president — really is less important in the context I’m talking about than what the focus and tone of the campaign does to broader discussions about where the coalfields are headed.

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Bob Murray on Donald Trump

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Robert Murray

Last week’s  very flattering New York Times profile of Murray Energy CEO Bob Murray had a little tidbit about Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump:

The day after his coal-mine visit, Mr. Murray delivered a lecture at West Liberty University, a small public college in nearby West Virginia. There, about 150 students packed a hall to earn extra credit for their business class.

Mr. Murray came with a five-page speech titled “The Ongoing Destruction of a Major American Industry,” which, among other things, described the “regal, outlaw Obama administration.” But once he reached the lectern, the speech was forgotten. Instead, Mr. Murray spoke extemporaneously.

He warned the students about government bureaucrats (“They are rejects compared with people in the private sector”); about Bernie Sanders (“The problem with socialists is that they eventually run out of other people’s money,” paraphrasing Margaret Thatcher); about the leading Republican presidential candidate (“I’m not sure about Donald Trump”); and about Ivy League schools (“These schools are lousy”).

He announced that he was organizing a fund-raiser for Ted Cruz, though he pointed out that he was not endorsing him.

That fundraiser occurred back in early April, and of course Sen. Cruz has since dropped out of the race. So I asked Murray spokesman Gary Broadbent for an update on Mr. Murray’s thinking on the election and here’s the statement he gave me:

Mr. Robert E. Murray has not, as yet, formally endorsed any Presidential candidate.  It appears likely, however, that Mr. Donald J. Trump will become the Republican nominee for President.  If nominated, we hope that Mr. Trump defeats Hillary Clinton, who has stated that, if elected President, she is “gonna put a lot of coal miners and coal companies outta business.”  Mr. Murray is seeking for Mr. Trump to make the same very large and significant commitments to support the United States coal industry, which Senator Cruz has made.

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)

Last evening at the Charleston Civic Center, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump certainly had a lot to say about coal miners. As the Gazette-Mail’s David Gutman reported:

The backdrop behind Trump was filled with men in miner’s stripes and hard hats waving “Trump digs coal” signs, and Trump peppered his remarks with his admiration for coal miners.

“I’ll tell you what folks, you’re amazing people,” Trump said. “The courage of the miners and the way the miners love what they do, they love what they do.”

“If I win we’re going to bring those miners back,” he said.

Then there was this:

Trump said he has “always been fascinated” by mining, “the engineering that’s involved and the safety and all that’s taken place over the last number of years.”

“All of it’s getting safe and as it gets safe they’re taking it away from you in a different way,” Trump said. “These ridiculous rules and regulations that make it impossible for you to compete, so we’re going to take that all off the table folks.”

As Gutman also reported, Trump is offering no real plan for how he’s going to reverse the downward spiral of the Southern West Virginia coal industry, though he (like West Virginia Democratic front-runner Jim Justice) is making bold promises — promises — in the face of just about every credible projection or analysis of where coal is actually headed (see here, here and here).

Just as important, though, is another issue that Trump didn’t talk about at all:  The growing crisis facing the pension and health-care funds that cover thousands upon thousands of United Mine Workers of America retirees and their families.

In the most recent UMWA Journal, union Secretary Treasurer Daniel Kane called this “the most important political issue facing the union right now. UMWA President Cecil Roberts told a U.S. Senate Committee in March:

… Today, there is a looming health care tragedy unfolding in the coalfields, with potentially devastating human effects. In many cases, the loss of health care benefits will be a matter of life or death. In all cases, it will be a financial disaster that the retired miners, who live on very meager pensions, will not be able to bear.

These are real people we are talking about. They live on small pensions, averaging $530 per month, plus Social Security. They rely very heavily on the health-care benefits they earned through decades of hard work in the nation’s coal mines … They spent decades putting their lives and health on the line every single day, going into coal mines across this nation to provide the energy and raw materials needed to make America the most powerful nation on earth. And they did that even though they knew they would pay a physical price for it.

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W.Va. Coal Association endorses Trump

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FILE - In this Sunday, May 1, 2016 file photo, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump reacts to a song during a campaign rally at the Indiana Theater in Terre Haute, Ind. (AP Photo/Seth Perlman)

In this Sunday, May 1, 2016 file photo, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump reacts to a song during a campaign rally at the Indiana Theater in Terre Haute, Ind. (AP Photo/Seth Perlman)

Here’s the latest from West Virginia Coal Association President Bill Raney:

The membership of the West Virginia Coal Association today announced it is endorsing Donald Trump, Republican of New York, for the office of president of the United States in this year’s election.  The unanimous decision was made at a membership meeting in Charleston earlier today.

“Donald Trump has been firm and clear throughout his campaign in his commitment to rebuild America’s basic industries – the industries that made this country great – such as coal, steel and manufacturing” said Bill Raney, WVCA president, in announcing the endorsement. “Trump has said he will reverse the Democratic regulatory assault that has cost the coal industry more than 40 percent of our production and jobs since 2008.”

“In contrast, Hillary Clinton’s proposals essentially double-down on the job killing Obama policies,” Raney continued. “West Virginia can’t afford that and neither can the nation.”

“We believe that with the leadership team of Donald Trump in the White House and Bill Cole as Governor, West Virginia will begin to rebuild what we have lost to the Obama War on Coal and also look to the future once again with confidence.”

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.


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.


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

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


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


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

And who would have thought:

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

Clinton and coal: Giving the industry its soundbite

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Who really runs West Virginia? (Part 2)

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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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