Coal Tattoo

‘One of the good coal operators’

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.”

Continue reading…

Coal context: Playing along with election by gaffe

AR-150429990

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.

Continue reading…

Caring about coal miners?

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.

main

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

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

Importantly:

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

Still:

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

And who would have thought:

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

Clinton and coal: Giving the industry its soundbite

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.”

Continue reading…

Who really runs West Virginia? (Part 2)

COAL TRAIN

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Continue reading…

Who really runs West Virginia?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Continue reading…

Obama to continue push for coalfield aid

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Continue reading…

Tomblin: Time to reinvest in W.Va. coalfields

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And he outlined several proposals for helping struggling coal communities.

First, there was this:

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

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

And then there was the big one:

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

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

Continue reading…

Tomblin

Photo by Tom Hindman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Last night, well … not so much.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Continue reading…

‘Big ideas’: Jim Justice on climate change

AR-151109764.jpg&imageVersion=SoftCropArticlePictures

Photo by Christian Tyler Randolph

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

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

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

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

President Obama on helping the coalfields

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

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

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

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

David asked this question:

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

The president responded:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Continue reading…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Continue reading…

Coming soon: Final EPA ‘Clean Power Plan

In this July 15, 2015, file photo, President Barack Obama answers a question during a news conference in the East Room of the White House in Washington. Turkey’s dramatic air campaign against the Islamic State and Kurdish forces has created a bit of a conundrum for Obama, who is leading the fight against one of Turkey’s targets while relying heavily on the other target.  (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais, File)

The New York Times reports today:

The final version of President Obama’s signature climate change policy is expected to extend an earlier timeline for states to significantly cut planet-warming pollution from power plants, according to people familiar with the plan.

If enacted, the climate change plan, the final version of which is expected to be unveiled as early as Monday, could stand as the most significant action ever taken by an American president to curb global warming. But some environmental groups have cautioned that a later deadline for states to comply could make it tougher for the United States to meet Mr. Obama’s climate change pledges on the world stage.

This is just the latest in a series of press reports that try to predict when the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is going to issue the final version of its Clean Power Plan and what that EPA plan will say.

One story from U.S. News and World Report, for example, said:

A sweeping federal rule that would curtail carbon emissions from power plants will likely be made even more stringent when it is finalized later this summer, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council, widely regarded as a close ally of the Environmental Protection Agency.

The rule, known as the Clean Power Plan, was unveiled by the EPA in June 2014. The subject of more than 4.3 million public comments, it is the keystone of President Barack Obama’s climate agenda and vigorously opposed by conservatives and industry groups.

“We are very optimistic and confident that it will be stronger, in particular in the areas of renewables and efficiencies,” NRDC President Rhea Suh said during a press briefing Wednesday at the organization’s headquarters in the nation’s capital.

UPDATED: Here’s a new report out today from EnergyWire:

U.S. EPA appears to be leaning toward giving states an extra two years — until 2022 — to start cutting carbon emissions from power plants under a final Clean Power Plan rule expected to be rolled out as early as Monday.

The rule will also provide more time for states to submit final plans, according to a timeline E&E obtained that was posted to EPA’s website.

Moving out the compliance dates could strengthen support from states friendly to the Obama administration’s climate plan and assuage the concerns of some critics. Across the political spectrum, state officials and energy companies have said more time is a concession EPA could grant in a final rule that would make it easier to cut greenhouse gas emissions 30 percent below 2005 levels by 2030 (ClimateWire, July 27).

Another piece from ClimateWire reported:

In countless meetings on the Clean Power Plan with states and energy companies, the most common plea to U.S. EPA has been for more time. More time to work on plans, more time to allow coal plants to retire and more time to move toward final goals.

It’s an easy concession for EPA — one that could go a long way toward ensuring flexibility under the rule without undercutting climate goals, knowledgeable observers say.

In particular, EPA has heard it should relax the rule’s interim goals, which require states to reach an average emissions rate between 2020 and 2029.

It’s a “big problem, and an unnecessary problem, with respect to the real goals of this regulation,” said Ken Colburn, a principal at the Regulatory Assistance Project, which advises state regulators tasked with writing carbon-cutting plans to meet state-specific targets.

Continue reading…

Gov. Tomblin and the Clean Power Plan

Earl Ray Tomblin

West Virginia Governor Earl Ray Tombin, a Democrat, waves at the conclusion of his inauguration speech on Monday, Jan. 14, 2013, in Charleston, W.Va.  (AP Photo/Randy Snyder)

Late last week, the Washington Post’s Joby Warrick had what certainly appeared to be a pretty interesting story with a Hazard, Kentucky, dateline:

Even after years of talk about a “war on coal,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell startled some of his constituents in March when he urged open rebellion against a White House proposal for cutting pollution from coal-fired power plants.

The Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan is “extremely burdensome and costly,” the Kentucky Republican said in letters advising all 50 states to boycott the rule when it goes into effect this summer.

The call for direct defiance was unusual even for McConnell, who has made a career of battling federal restrictions on coal. Yet more striking is what has happened since: Kentucky’s government and electric utilities have quietly positioned themselves to comply with the rule — something state officials expect to do with relatively little effort.

In this coal-industry bastion, five of the state’s older coal-burning power plants were already scheduled to close or switch to natural gas in the next two years, either because of aging equipment or to save money, state officials say. As a result, Kentucky’s greenhouse-gas emissions are set to plummet 16 percent below where they were in 2012 — within easy reach of the 18 percent reduction goal proposed by the Environmental Protection Agency in a draft of the agency’s controversial carbon-cutting plan.

“We can meet it,” Kentucky Energy and Environment Secretary Leonard Peters, speaking at a climate conference, said of the EPA’s mandate.

The nut graph:

The story is the same across much of the country as the EPA prepares to roll out what is arguably the biggest and most controversial environmental regulation of the Obama presidency. Under the Clean Power Plan, states will have to find ways to achieve dramatic cuts in carbon pollution over the next 15 years, with reduction quotas topping 50 percent over 2012 levels for some states. But despite dire warnings and harsh political rhetoric, many states are already on track to meet their targets, even before the EPA formally announces them, interviews and independent studies show.

Later on, though, a problem cropped up when Joby wrote:

Six governors have taken up McConnell’s call to “just say no” to the EPA’s proposal. Five are Republicans — including presidential contenders Bobby Jindal of Louisiana and Scott Walker of Wisconsin — and one, Earl Ray Tomblin of West Virginia, is a Democrat.

The Gazette-Mail’s David Gutman pointed this out, and noted he didn’t recall Gov. Tomblin actually going along — at least publicly — with Sen. McConnell’s plan. So I checked in with the governor’s communications officer, Chris Stadelman. And sure enough, Chris told me in an email message that Gov. Tomblin “has not made a final decision” on Sen. McConnell’s proposal but “will do what’s in the best interest of WV residents.”

Continue reading…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

blast_osm1

Really, isn’t anyone — outside of the people who wrote it — fooling themselves if they think they already understand all of the implications of the new “Stream Protection Rule” proposal made public this week by the federal Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement?

Gosh, I mean, the rule itself is 1,238 pages long and the accompanying Environmental Impact Statement is 1,267 pages long.  As I wrote in today’s Gazette story, though, really solid, definitive reactions from industry officials and their political allies were flying out literally as Interior Department officials were making these documents public.

For example, here’s West Virginia’s senior U.S. Senator, Democrat Joe Manchin:

This Administration’s long list of overreaching regulations is absolutely crippling West Virginia families and businesses. This proposed rule would have a devastating impact on our families, jobs and economy, and it fails to strike an appropriate balance between the economy and the environment.

The media isn’t much better. Here’s Hoppy Kercheval over at MetroNews:

Meanwhile, the Interior Department is trying to downplay the economic impact on coal states like West Virginia.

Several years ago a draft of the report leaked, saying the updated stream buffer rule would result in the loss of 7,000 jobs. The outcry was intense, but the Interior Department patched that up by just using a different formula to come up with new numbers… and voila!

Now the agency claims, with no hint of irony, that the rules will preserve “economic opportunities.” Specifically, according to their consultant’s revised calculations, 460 jobs will be lost, but 250 jobs will be created in mine reclamation work.

If we get many more of these Washington “opportunities” we’ll have to turn out the lights.

Here’s the thing, though, if Hoppy had actually read the rule or the EIS, he wouldn’t have used that 460-jobs figure — because it’s not in the report. It was mistakenly given to media during a conference call. I don’t know if Hoppy was on that call or saw the number in another media account, but he sure didn’t look at the actual economic impact numbers in the EIS, or he would have noticed the problem.

To be fair to Hoppy, I doubt any of the reporters who had to cover this story on deadline yesterday finished every single page of both documents. I certainly didn’t. But any reasonable reading of my story will not see the broad, sweeping conclusions he’s already drawing. I specifically noted:

The exact contents of the rule — such as how well it protects streams inside mining permit area “footprints” or toughens the definition of “material damage” to streams that isn’t allowed under the law — were still being digested by all sides Thursday.

Continue reading…

Coals War

A few weeks ago, I attended a really uplifting meeting over at Hawks Nest State Park (written about previously here and here) where a lot of smart people really focused on the nuts and bolts of how West Virginia can reach out and use what resources the federal government is making available to help our coalfield communities recover from the downfall of the mining industry.

One of the lingering questions from that meeting was how far along President Obama’s nearly $5 billion aid package for the coalfields is in Congress.  Turns out, not very far. And if these proposals are to survive, it sounds like it’s going to be in spite of — certainly not because of — the efforts of West Virginia’s congressional delegation. Here’s what we reported in Sunday’s Gazette-Mail:

West Virginia’s representatives in Washington don’t sound particularly enthusiastic about the Obama administration’s proposals to funnel nearly $5 billion in various economic aid to coalfield communities that are struggling as the state’s mining industry continues to decline.

A spokeswoman for at least one of West Virginia’s five-member congressional delegation — first-term Republican Rep. Alex Mooney — was especially clear when asked if her boss supported President Obama’s “Power Plus Plan,” a collection of budgetary and legislative proposals aimed at diversifying coalfield community economies.

“No, Representative Mooney does not support the Power Plus Plan,” Meredith Jones said.

You have to hand it to Rep. Mooney and his staff. At least they were up front about where they stand — though I couldn’t manage to get them to provide a coherent explanation of why in the world a West Virginia congressman would oppose money to help the communities in his district.

Most of the delegation took the route that Sen. Shelley Moore Capito chose with this statement:

While Senator Capito welcomes any investments that help distressed communities and create lasting jobs, it’s important to remember the catastrophic effects this administration’s proposed regulations have had on West Virginia. The administration has instituted sweeping regulations that have destroyed our economy’s very foundation without considering the real-world impacts, and funding alone won’t fix that.

Most of this line of thinking, of course, ignores the fact that much of the Southern West Virginia coal industry’s woes have more to do with geology and economic competition than they do with environmental regulation, and simply perpetuates the false notion that if we can just hold off until Obama is out of office, the next coal boom is right around the corner. (For more about this, see the excellent blog series underway here and here by Jeremy Richardson of the Union of Concerned Scientists).

Continue reading…