Coal Tattoo

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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Does Justice campaign not care about the fines?

Jim Justice

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

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

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

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

Here’s the ad:

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

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

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

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Trump and coal — remember the facts

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)

As Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump prepares for his big speech tonight at the Republican National Convention, Trump’s promises about the coal industry are getting some attention again.

Remember that Trump was very clear when he spoke here in Charleston a few months ago:

If I win we’re going to bring those miners back.

Yet, as Fortune points out:

Donald Trump’s promise to bring coal mining jobs back to West Virginia is pure fantasy. Even if environmental protections are eased under a Trump presidency, demand for coal, especially West Virginian coal, will continue to decline due purely to market forces. If Trump wants to help West Virginia, he should support efforts to diversify its economy into something more sustainable, like tourism or healthcare.

Likewise, there’s this report from High Country News:

Amid the federal government’s reform of coal-leasing nationwide, new environmental regulations and coalmine cutbacks and layoffs, a new report from the Energy Information Administration suggests things are likely to get even grimmer for coal mining … While the EIA’s report shows that federal regulations have played a part in industry decline, historically cheap natural gas has outcompeted coal, making it harder for coal companies to stay in business.

And here’s another piece, from The Hill, in which even  a Trump supporter offers somewhat contorted projections for the future:

A key congressional ally to Donald Trump said the Republican presidential candidate would focus his coal policies first on slowing down the industry’s rapid decline.

Rep. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.), who acts as an informal adviser to Trump on energy policy, was asked at a Politico event near the Republican National Convention in Cleveland Wednesday how many new coal-fired power plants would open under a Trump presidency.

 But he didn’t promise a rosy future for coal.

“I think the first thing you have to do is stop the bleeding,” Cramer responded, going on to say that Trump would then look to encourage “new technologies” to make coal a cleaner-burning energy source.

“The problem is that if we have policies like we have today that are designed to keep coal in the ground, shut it down at all costs, the innovators that could create the solutions, they’ll be out of business before they can create the solution,” Cramer said. “And we’re well on our way to a solution. But I think the race is, can they kill coal before we get to that solution?”

Just as important, remember this piece from Coal Tattoo back when Trump visited West Virginia:

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 …

It’s important to remember that this looming crisis won’t go away, even if the coal industry were to suddenly rebound. The problems with the solvency of the UMWA pension plan, for example, grow from the 2008 financial meltdown (now, whose fault was that?). Even if employment were to return to pre-meltdown levels, many of the companies that were paying into the pension plan then have since been relieved of that obligation by the federal bankruptcy courts. And even if that weren’t the case, it’s far from clear that the rising contributions alone would be enough. The same goes for the union’s health-care plan financial problems.

As we’ve talked about before, President Obama has a proposal for dealing with this crisis.  In Congress, members of both parties — Rep. David McKinley and Sens. Joe Manchin and Shelley Moore Capito — have a proposal. Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton has a proposal.

But when the presumptive Republican nominee for president had a huge audience of coalfield families in the palm of his hand over at the Civic Center, he didn’t think that this issue was worthy of mention.

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?

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

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

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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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

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’

Take it Back Jim from Goodwin for WV on Vimeo.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jim Justice

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

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

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

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

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

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

Really?

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

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

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

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

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

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