Coal Tattoo

pizarchiktestifies

It seems that at least some of the beltway media are expecting some serious news to come out of a hearing this morning before the House Natural Resources Committee, where Republicans are continuing to try to manufacture some major Obama administration scandal out of the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement’s bungling of the Environmental Impact Statement for its rewrite of the stream buffer zone rule.

The National Journal, for example, ran with the ridiculous headline, Explosions Coming Over Mountaintop-Mining Rule and a typical story reducing the matter — and all things related to mountaintop removal and coal mining — to the standard Democrats vs. Republicans story line.

If you missed the notice for the House committee hearing, here’s how the Republican leadership staff described their plan for the event:

For over two years, the Committee has been conducting an investigation into the rewrite of this coal production regulation. This unnecessary rewrite, carried out through the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement (OSM) at the Department of the Interior, proposed to dramatically alter a regulation that took over five years of environmental analysis and careful scientific consideration to complete. The Department’s process in rewriting this regulation has been rushed and unorthodox. After tossing aside the 2008 plan, the Department spent millions of taxpayer dollars and hired new contractors to complete a new environmental impact statement, even though one was already completed for the 2008 rule. Those contractors were dismissed after it was publicly revealed that the Administration’s new proposed regulation would cost 7,000 jobs and cause economic harm in 22 states. The Administration has spent five years and over $9 million taxpayer dollars working on this rewrite, but has failed to even publish a draft rule. In September 2012, the Committee released its own report on this issue entitled, “President Obama’s Covert And Unorthodox Efforts to Impose New Regulation on Coal Mining and Destroy American Jobs.”

For those who have forgotten, this all goes back to the big scoop that Tim Huber wrote for The Associated Press in January 2011, about the potential job losses outlined in a leaked documents from the OSMRE EIS.

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W.Va. Gov. Tomblin easing up on coal rhetoric?

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Photo via governor’s website video stream.

If you were watching or listening closely to tonight’s State of the State address, you might have noticed what is at least a slight change in the tone of West Virginia Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin’s rhetoric about the coal industry and the Obama administration’s policies. Here’s what the governor said:

Serving new markets for coal, Carbonyx, a Texas-based company, will invest tens of millions of dollars in a new Jackson County plant. This new development will create 60 jobs in its first phase. The plant will make a carbon alloy replacement for coke, a key ingredient for steelmaking. And best of all, Carbonyx will use West Virginia coal in its manufacturing process.

To keep our coal industry alive and well—and I promise you we will—we must continue to seek out new markets and uses for it, while doing what we can to help the industry reduce costs, and be more productive, efficient, safe and environmentally friendly.

While I will never back down from the EPA because of its misguided policies on coal, we should remind ourselves a challenge doesn’t always lead to confrontation. Last summer I sat across the table from EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy and shared our story. We have been hit hard. But with planning and perseverance I believe the obstacles can be overcome. 

That highlighted part really struck me, both when I read the embargoed prepared text provided to journalists, and when I watched Gov. Tomblin deliver the speech. So I went back and compared those comments to his previous State of the State addresses. Clearly, the governor tonight said less about the coal industry and its problems than in his earliest State of the State three years ago. And, he appears to have backed off the rhetoric — at least a little bit.

If you want to compare yourself, here are the appropriate portions of his previous speeches:

The 2011 State of the State address:

As we move to diversify and expand our economy, we cannot forget one of the cornerstones of our State – the production of our natural resources. The appropriate use of natural resources can serve as a strong foundation for West Virginia’s economic future.

We all know that coal keeps the lights on. But we cannot forget – or let others ignore – that it is vital to the economic and national security of our country to utilize West Virginia’s natural resources. According to recent studies, coal means 63,000 jobs to West Virginia and over twenty-five billion dollars to our State’s economy.

And it’s not just about West Virginia. Our Country relies on coal for almost half – HALF – of all its electric generation. Coal-fired electricity costs 1/3 than that of other forms of generation. In these tough economic times, we should be looking for more ways to use coal, not less. It is hard to understand why some people want to turn their back on and vilify such an important resource that has such potential – and a proven track record – for our Country.

Do not misunderstand my message – the fact that coal has such a positive impact for West Virginia and our country does not mean that we should turn a blind eye to safety or environmental concerns. I firmly believe that we can mine coal in an environmentally safe manner. And, I firmly believe that we will develop ways to burn coal in a carbon-friendly manner.

But what we cannot stand for is a mentality that ignores the realities of the world we live in. While the rest of the world moves toward industrialization and the use of coal-fired generation, our own federal government seems focused on bringing a crushing halt to one of the cheapest, most reliable forms of energy we have ever known. And if we turn our back on coal while other nations use it, all we are doing is continuing to give other nations additional economic advantages over America.

The 2012 State of the State address:

Let me now speak very directly about one of my problems with Washington.

As long as I am Governor I will continue to fight this administrations war on coal! A few months ago, a federal court agreed with our lawsuit and ruled that the federal EPA had in fact overstepped its authority. I will keep fighting until Washington recognizes that one of the keys to America’s future is the use and promotion of our natural resources. It is a fight from which I will not shrink, and one that I fully expect to win!

The 2013 State of the State address:

We also cannot forget an industry that has been an integral part of West Virginia—and that is our coal industry. This industry continues to enable West Virginia to be a national leader. The dedication of coal miners is the work that built our State and the work that sustains it. I believe in the production of coal, its value to our country, and I will continue to do everything that I can to fight the EPA and its misguided attempts to cripple this industry.

MileyPolitical watchers here in West Virginia are waiting this afternoon to hear exactly what proposals Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin will make in his State of the State address tonight.

But we were treated so far this week to several announcements of what the Democratic leadership in the House of Delegates hopes to focus on during the 2014 session (see here, here and here for the official announcements).

First of all, it was good to see that House Speaker Tim Miley’s (left) leadership team threw their support behind the proposal — championed by the West Virginia Center for Budget and Policy and by Senate President Jeff Kessler — for some sort of “future fund” to use fossil fuel taxes to work toward a more diverse economy in our state:

Delegate Kevin Craig, said House leadership concurs with the Senate leadership and sees potential in a future fund that creates a source of revenue generated by the oil and gas industry but which doesn’t increase the cost of producing oil and gas in the state.

“The use of the revenue from the future fund can be for many different activities, but should certainly be utilized in areas that serve as an investment in our state’s future, such as education, teacher salaries, and infrastructure,” he said.

We’ll see how much attention and effort House leaders put toward getting this sort of a bill through and a program implemented.

But if you’re looking for much else from House Democrats in the way of dealing with many of the major issues facing our state’s coalfields — climate change, damage done by mountaintop removal (see here and here), the shifting energy economy and dwindling coal reserves that are greatly slowing Southern West Virginia coal production, or the continuing problems protecting miner health and safety — this week’s announced agenda isn’t the place to look.

Now, I’m not saying that the Legislature’s growing Republican caucus is really doing anything about these problems. But take a look at what the Democrats say in the “energy” portion of their own agenda. First there was this:

“In order to continue our focus on our state’s natural resources, a standing committee on energy is being created so that it can focus solely on all issues related to energy,” Speaker Miley said. “By doing so, it will cause the introduction of legislation to occur that also focuses solely on energy, including several proposals from our leadership team.”

 Delegate Kevin Craig, who is vice president for business development for Natural Resource Partners in Cabell County, will chair the committee.

 “The energy industry is so vital to our state, so it makes perfect sense to establish a standing committee that can direct all its attention to the issues that affect that sector,” Craig said. “I am looking forward to getting to work.”

Just for the record, Natural Resource Partners is the third largest land-holding company in West Virginia, according to the newly updated “Who Owns West Virginia” report, which says of the company:

Natural Resource Partners of Houston, Texas, owns 212,927 acres in nine counties. The company, formed in 2002, is primarily engaged in managing mineral reserve properties and does not actively mine the properties, instead collecting royalties from mine owners.

Then, the Democrats threw in this section, called, “Expedited permitting”:

“The Legislature will review permitting processes and take steps to ensure that permits are granted in a responsible yet expeditious manner so that capital does not sit idle,” Miley said.

“It is imperative that those businesses within the energy sector that need to secure permits for their business activities be able to apply and obtain such permits in a prompt and expeditious manner,” Delegate Craig added. “Any delay in the permitting process only causes money and property to be idle and not be engaged in our local and state economy.”

It would be easier to believe that House leaders were concerned about permit reviews being done in a “responsible” manner if they hadn’t shown us last year what a rush they were in to help the coal industry try to weaken water quality standards for things like toxic selenium. Or maybe, if they didn’t assume that all permits should be issued, and instead really talked about quality permit reviews, rather than “expedited” approval of all permits.

And how about coal-mine safety? Well, having watched Tomblin administration stumbling and state board stonewalling for two years now — two years in which West Virginia again led the nation in coal deaths — you might think House Democrats would have a strong agenda aimed at implementing some of the reforms called for in a new report that they themselves commissioned. Instead, the agenda calls for creating what I guess is a glorified “blue ribbon commission”:

One of the methods to ensure worker safety is the creation of an energy industry health and safety commission, made up of legislators from the House and Senate, to help the Legislature remain vigilant regarding safety concerns with both the coal and natural gas extraction industries.

The commission would meet quarterly and be provided information regarding fatalities and serious injuries that occur in our energy industry in West Virginia.

“The workers in these industries are the most critical component to the economic success of those industries, and the Legislature has a moral imperative to do everything possible to provide them with a safe and healthy work environment,” House Majority Whip Mike Caputo said. “By being kept apprised of these matters, the committee can determine if legislation will be necessary to prevent these accidents.”

Energy Summit: Baby steps forward, but miles to go

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As these things go, yesterday’s Governor’s Energy Summit could have been a lot worse.  The annual summit has always been almost exclusively a cheer-leading session for coal, natural gas and big utility companies. The Division of Energy is far from inclusive in the voices it allows, and even when some non-fossil fuel advocate is allowed, they get stuck way at the end of the day, when the crowd as sufficiently thinned out.

We’ve got two stories in the Gazette about this year’s version of the summit. One features the opening speech delivered by Murray Energy President Bob Murray (see video below) and another that tried to capture the broader discussion among various speakers.

Once again this year, about a dozen of the 17 speakers I counted focused on criticizing federal environmental regulations or otherwise promoting coal, natural gas or oil. The first few sessions were stacked with coal industry officials, natural gas lobbyists and the like. But there were a few twists — like how Arch Coal’s Deck Slone didn’t spend his time trying to deny the global warming is happening, and instead talked about what he says is a better route toward controlling coal’s emissions: Investing more in CCS, rather than mandating the technology through U.S. EPA regulations. I’m not sure Deck is anywhere near right about that. Most experts seem to be pretty sure that this sort of technology is going nowhere without a government mandate (see here, here and here).

But for a coal industry official to acknowledge that climate change is a problem (“It’s a very difficult topic we’re going to be dealing with for a long time.”), rather than insisting the world is actually cooling, was a refreshing change — and a step forward for such discussions in West Virginia. And along with Slone’s comments, we heard this from Appalachian Power President Charles Patton:

The reality is this carbon debate is one we are going to have to figure out how to move forward. Just saying ‘no’ and just sticking our heads in the sand is not going to work.

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More silly attacks on Rep. Nick Rahall

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We’ve got a long, long way to go before the next election, but Republicans and their friends in the industry just can’t wait to take more silly shots at Rep. Nick J. Rahall. The latest effort is mentioned in a National Journal item that explains:

In campaign politics, it doesn’t take much to tie someone to an unsavory policy position. Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., is probably wondering how he came to be labeled a carbon-tax supporter, but one group is making that claim in a new ad.

Oddly enough, the American Energy Alliance put out a press release promoting this new ad campaign, saying:

The American Energy Alliance (AEA) began today airing two weeks of cable and network television commercial advertisements targeting Rep. Nick Rahall (D-W.Va) for his controversial support for carbon tax measures that would harm his own constituents and his state’s economy if enacted. Beginning Dec. 4 and continuing throughDec. 18, AEA will run the “These Days” advertisement in West Virginia’s four largest television markets.

Rahall, the 19-term Democrat representing West Virginia’s 3rd Congressional District, has often walked the fine line between advancing policies supportive of the Mountain State’s vital coal industry and the anti-coal policies of his party’s senior leadership. Currently, West Virginia is among the nation’s top three coal producing states, and supplies more than one-third of all the coal produced east of the Mississippi River. Moreover, West Virginia’s electricity needs are met almost entirely by coal-fired power plants, which are under regulatory assault due to the anti-coal bias of current administration polices. Despite the harmful impacts of carbon tax measures, Rahall has supported legislation that would cost West Virginia as much as 40,000 jobs.

We’ve been through this before, and even Hoppy Kercheval over at West Virginia MetroNews isn’t buying the line that Rep. Rahall is against the coal industry. I mean, come on, Rep. Rahall has been right there with the Republicans, trying to eliminate important Clean Water Act protections and he’s done really nothing about the growing concerns about scientific studies showing his district’s residents face greater health risks because they live near mountaintop removal mining. More and more, Rep. Rahall sounds like a climate change denier.

If anything, Rep. Rahall has turned his back on his constituents who face the problems caused by large-scale surface coal mining in Southern West Virginia. To argue that he’s an anti-coal liberal is just nonsense.

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Special Gubernatorial Primary Election

It’s been about three months since some folks from Radical Action for Mountain Peoples Survival (RAMPS) decided it was a good idea to show up on the steps of the governor’s mansion with a barrel of some sort of black water, as part of their effort to get Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin to pay even a little bit of attention to the pollution and public health concerns of West Virginians who live near coal-mining operations.

Some readers may recall that the Daily Mail gave a blow-by-blow account of the incident and the police response to it, and that I pointed out the coverage lacked any sort of context about the perfectly legitimate reasons anyone would want to mount a protest about lax regulation of coal-slurry impoundments.

But another thing struck me about this incident, and it’s taken me a while to get the bottom of it. And that’s this line that was pushed by the Tomblin administration that there was no need for RAMPS to organize a protest like this, that if they had only asked to meet with Gov. Tomblin, the governor would have gladly sat down and listened to their concerns. On the day of the protest, the governor’s office said the protester had said he was denied a meeting, but that they didn’t have a record of any such request.

That didn’t seem correct to me.  So I went back through previous stories and notes and documents, and in fact RAMPS had asked for a meeting with Gov. Tomblin. They did so as part of a previous event at the Capitol, way back in October 2012. Here’s a blog post about that event and a link to the letter they delivered to the governor’s office that day. As you can see from that blog post, here’s what Amy Shuler Goodwin, the governor’s communications director, said in response to the letter:

… We do have an open door policy here in the governor’s office and will be happy to review the upcoming calendar.

Starting about a week after the August protest, I began asking the governor’s office whatever happened with their promise to review the calendar and whether Gov. Tomblin’s “open door” policy extended to actually meeting in person and talking with any of the folks from RAMPS or officials from other West Virginia environmental groups. Try as a might, I just couldn’t get an answer. So finally, I submitted a Freedom of Information Act request.

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rockefellerspeech

Over the last 2 1/2 years, Sen. Jay Rockefeller has offered glimpses into how a West Virginia political leader could take a more reasoned stance on coal and climate change. Among our leaders, he’s really the only major elected official who has been willing to call out the coal industry for its “scare tactics” and urge a more measured response to Obama administration initiatives.

But Sen. Rockefeller has never really gone that far down this road. He’s unwilling to say much about the environmental and public health damage from mountaintop removal, for example. And whenever he’s shown leadership on climate change issues, he’s usually been quick to walk his position back a bit (see here and here).

That’s why the senator’s letter this week to EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy is revealing, and a bit disappointing. Sen. Rockefeller is jumping on the bandwagon of West Virginians who are calling for McCarthy to visit the state, and perhaps to have a greenhouse gas rule listening session here.

For the record, I joined Rep. Shelley Moore Capito more than a month ago in observing that it was wrong for EPA officials to skip West Virginia and other major coal-producing states in their tour of the country to hear what people think about the agency’s plans to limit carbon dioxide emissions from power plants. What’s troublesome isn’t that Sen. Rockefeller is urging EPA to come to West Virginia. But look at the words he chooses in doing so:

I’ve always said that any clean coal policy must, at its core, have the interests of West Virginia’s communities in mind.  In West Virginia, 96% of our energy needs are met by coal and over 26,000 individuals are employed by the coal industry in the state.  West Virginia has long been key in providing the country with an affordable energy source and will continue to play a significant role into the future.  As you know, I strongly believe in a future of clean coal and that the United States is well-positioned to become the world leader in meeting this technological challenge but we must bring everyone to the table as we work to meet this goal if we are to succeed. 

Clean coal policy? That’s not what this is … it’s a climate change policy (actually, I believe President Obama calls it his Climate Action Plan). It’s true that exactly how Climate Action Plan ends up being implemented could have a big impact on the future of coal. Of course, it’s also true that the path being charted by most West Virginia leaders — all-out opposition to EPA rules on greenhouse gas emissions — is a loser for the coal industry, as a House subcommittee heard in testimony yesterday.

But the issues being dealt with here — the future of our civilization, and what sort of climate we will have to try to survive in — are far broader than the future of the coal industry in West Virginia. And Sen. Rockefeller knows that. But by calling it something so narrow as a “clean coal policy” — and this isn’t the first time he’s done it — Sen. Rockefeller is simply perpetuating the notion that coal is all there really is for West Virginians, and that coal is all the national and international debate about a climate change policy should focus on. I don’t believe Sen. Rockefeller really thinks that. If not, perhaps he needs to rework his talking points.

Coal industry takes is message to Washington

As The Associated Press is reporting, coal industry groups are taking their message — opposition to Obama administration regulatory measures — to Washington today:

Miners from West Virginia, Virginia and other states are joining 30 members of Congress in Washington, D.C., to rally against regulatory polices they say are killing jobs in coal country.

Count on Coal’s Rally for American Energy Jobs is today outside the U.S. Capitol.

National Mining Association President Hal Quinn says the administration needs to hear from workers who produce the coal that creates 40 percent of the nation’s electricity.

The National Mining Association said on its website:

Count On Coal today announced it will host a Rally for American Energy Jobs on the West Front of the United States Capitol on October 29th, where thousands of American workers from more than a dozen states will gather to hear remarks by elected officials, energy employees and labor leaders.

Hal Quinn, president and CEO of the National Mining Association, urged the administration to hear from these workers who supply 40 percent of the nation’s electricity: “EPA is hosting listening sessions on its power plant regulations. Here’s an opportunity to listen to those directly affected by the agency’s rules.”

It’s interesting to read the statement issued by CONSOL Energy about the rally:

Virginia CONSOL Energy employees and retirees boarded three Eastern Coal Council buses in far Southwest Virginia Monday along with other coal company representatives, coal suppliers and supporters, to head across the state to attend the rally planned for Tuesday. Two busloads of CONSOL Energy employees and members of Boilermakers Local 154 left from Pennsylvania early Tuesday morning headed to the rally site where National Mining Association and Count on Coal officials estimated approximately 65 industry buses were expected to arrive Tuesday morning carrying thousands of coal supporters.

“CONSOL Energy is pleased to be a part of the rally both through our sponsorship of buses headed to the rally and through our employees and retirees who volunteered their time to stand up for coal and what it means to our economy in the way of jobs and affordable, reliable electricity for millions of Americans,” said Cathy St. Clair, CONSOL Energy public affairs director.

“It is our hope through this rally that we can focus attention on coal and its importance not only as a baseload energy provider, but also in its role as the backbone of the American economy,” St. Clair continued. “We hope that we can draw attention to the fact that the policies which come from Washington directly have an impact on the people who choose to work in the coal industry and their families whose jobs and livelihoods are now threatened by some of those policies.”

NMA noted more than 30 members of Congress have asked to speak at the rally to express their support for coal, the people who work in the industry and their understanding of the importance of coal to the nation’s economy.

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MSHA gets more attention as shutdown drags on

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We’ve been writing for several days now about the impact of the Republican government shutdown on the ability of the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration to conduct its regular — and legally required — mine inspections, a vital part of MSHA’s duty to protect the health and safety of the nation’s coal miners (see here, here and here).

Well, today, the issue got even more attention. First, we heard from Rep. Nick J. Rahall, D-W.Va., who delivered a House floor speech about the issue, saying:

I stand here today to remind my colleagues, and the public, that cuts in government funding and government programs have consequences — sometimes deadly.

It is a lesson we learned in 2006 when annual coal mining deaths soared to 45, a 10-year high, reversing an 80-year trend of steadily falling fatalities – a trend attributed, in part, to years of underfunding the Mine Safety and Health Administration.

It is a lesson we should heed now. This year, as of September 4th, 14 coal miners had died on the job in our country. And this past weekend, three coal miners lost their lives at work over three consecutive days — including, one miner in West Virginia.

Think about that: In first nine months of the year, fourteen coal miners perished on the job. In the first nine days of the government shutdown, three coal miners have perished. Mr. Speaker, even one death is too many.

Rep. Rahall continued:

WV MINE EXPLOSIONNo one has linked these recent deaths directly to the government shutdown.  But the inability of this Congress to pass a simple bill to fund all the operations of our government has resulted in cutbacks of routine inspections that are essential to the complex system of safety oversight of this complex industry.

I hope that everyone in the coal industry — from the CEOs to the office staff, to security guards, to the miners themselves — will redouble their vigilance and take every possible step to ensure health and safety.  

And I urge my colleagues to abandon this ridiculous political showdown that is undercutting the safety in our mines, our industrial facilities, our food chain, and so much more.  

This is not a slow down.  It is not a slim down.  

This is a politically driven shutdown and it has real and dangerous consequences for the people who put their faith in us to provide them with basic services, to ensure their well-being, to protect their lives, to simply do the job we were elected to do – to lead. 

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Shutdown: Inspections cut, permit reviews slowed

Budget Battle

A sign is posted on a barricade in front of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, Tuesday, Oct. 1, 2013. Congress plunged the nation into a partial government shutdown Tuesday as a long-running dispute over President Barack Obama’s health care law stalled a temporary funding bill, forcing about 800,000 federal workers off the job and suspending most non-essential federal programs and services. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

As everyone knows by now, the federal government is in the process of closing down for reasons that The Guardian probably explained most clearly:

A shutdown of the US federal government, the first in nearly two decades, was looming close on Monday night as Congress careered toward a midnight deadline with little prospect of a deal to avert the crisis caused by a determined bloc of rightwingers in the House of Representatives.

Today’s Gazette story localizing the impacts, Shutdown would bring furloughs, closures to W.Va., explains some of the more important coal-related impacts:

Under a shutdown, active staff at labor’s Mine Safety and Health Administration would be cut from 2,355 to 966. MSHA, though, would continue “to perform certain activities which, if not performed, would significantly compromise the safety of human life in the nation’s mines.

But instead of performing legally mandated regular inspections at all of the nation’s underground and surface mines and mining facilities, MSHA inspectors would visit only certain operations.

“MSHA will perform targeted inspections at mines which have been prioritized based on the mine’s history of the hazards that put miners’ lives at risk,” agency chief Joe Main said in his contingency plan, dated Sept. 10. “Hazard-specific inspections will also be conducted across the nation to address those conditions and practices which have been recent key causes of death and serious injury.”

Main said that “if unforeseen emergencies, such as a mine disaster” occurred, additional employees would be identified to work.

 You can read more yourself in the shutdown contingency plans for MSHA, the federal Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement and other agencies.

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Obama-Climate Change-Winners and Losers

While I was out last week, my email inbox certainly filed up with statements about the big U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announcement regarding its continued movement toward the first-ever limits on global warming pollution from the nation’s coal-fired power plants.

Most of the reaction from West Virginia political and business leaders was hardly surprising.  It’s not too much of a stretch to say that Democratic leaders, generally, were all about attacking their own party’s president, bashing EPA, and generally trying to protect themselves from any criticism that they aren’t all about coal. The career campaign consultants who run our state’s Republican party, meanwhile, continued to basically show that they don’t really have any ideas on these issues, and just want to try to ride anti-Obama sentiment into office.

For example, here’s Rep. Nick J. Rahall, D-W.Va. :

rahall_photo2I am dead-set against the EPA and their scheme to issue emissions standards that would make it next to impossible for new coal-fired power plants to be constructed. In mandating that new power plants utilize technology that is not even commercially available, let alone affordable, the Agency is preventing abundant American coal from meeting America’s future energy needs. The result of this wrong-headed policy would be higher energy bills for families and businesses, reduced power reliability and energy independence for our nation, and lost jobs for our coal miners.

This callous, ideologically driven Agency continues to be numb to the economic pain that their reckless regulations cause. Today’s rule is just the latest salvo in the EPA’s war on coal, a war I have unwaveringly soldiered against, and I will work tirelessly to prevent such an ill-conceived and illogical plan from moving forward.

And here’s Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va.:

capito2EPA’s action strikes at the core of West Virginia and is yet another sign that this Administration simply doesn’t care about the hard working men and women who earn their living in the coal industry, doesn’t care about providing reliable and affordable energy to power the national economy for years to come, and doesn’t care about harming the very fabric of communities across our state.
 
West Virginia families and businesses have already paid a heavy price due to EPA’s overbearing regulations.  We must take into account the economic impact of government regulations on local communities, and we should not take an action that hinders our nation’s ability to compete globally.  

Keeps getting harder and harder to tell the difference, doesn’t it?

What becomes more and more maddening is the lengths to which our political leaders will twist reality and bend logic in their quest to pledge their allegiance to the coal industry.

Mine ExplosionTake the statement issued about last week’s EPA announcement by Sen. Joe Manchin, D.W.Va. You can read the whole thing for yourself here. What’s fascinating about it is that in one sentence, Sen. Manchin proclaims:

Forcing coal to meet nearly the same emissions standards as gas when experts know that the required technology is not operational on a commercial scale makes absolutely no sense and will have devastating impacts to the coal industry and our economy.

But then a few sentenced later, he insists:

It’s just common sense to level the playing field and accept that coal is, and will be for the foreseeable future, a significant part of our energy mix.

OK, now. Which is it? Does Sen. Manchin want a level playing field, where all sources of energy compete fairly? Or does he want a tilted playing field where coal is made competitive by allowing the true costs of using it to be externalized, in this case by contributing to global warming pollution and the climate crisis?

About the only West Virginia leader who was coming anywhere close to making sense on all of this was retiring Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., who issued this statement on the EPA announcement:

rockefellersept2013I’ve always said that any clean coal policy must, at its core, have the interests of miners and their families in mind — and that new technology is the best and only way to secure their future.

The EPA’s new carbon emission plan includes tough requirements for future coal-fired power plants and pushes us hard toward clean coal technologies that have great potential but are not yet deployed at full-scale, and are difficult to finance.

These rules will only work if we act now to strengthen our investment in clean coal technology and to advance public-private partnerships more seriously than ever. We need everyone with a stake in clean coal to come together for these solutions to become a reality.

This rule is undeniably a daunting challenge, but it’s also a call to action. West Virginia and America have overcome far greater technological obstacles than this one, and I refuse to believe we can’t do it again.

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Diversifying the coalfields: Finding a path forward

Census Dying Counties

Coal Tattoo posts have been pretty scarce this week, in large part because I tried to focus my time on the groundbreaking forum, “A Bright Economic Future for the Mountain State,” over at the Clay Center. 

The event, sponsored by the Union of Concerned Scientists, the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy, and the West Virginia Community Development Hub, aimed to jump-start the discussion about what our state is — and more important what else we can — do to help soften the impact of the ongoing coal decline in West Virginia’s southern counties. If you missed it, we’ve got coverage of it here, here, here and here.

A couple of moments in the forum stuck in my mind. One was when Charleston Area Alliance Matt Ballard — certainly no coal-hating socialist — made his views pretty clear about the need for West Virginia to look forward, not backward, when it comes to making our communities places where families can live and work:

There certainly is an element in our state that doesn’t want things to change, and we have to overcome that.  When we talk about West Virginia’s future, we have to understand that it’s not going to look like our past.

Matt didn’t really get very specific about exactly what element of our state he was talking about. But you know what, it doesn’t matter. Because we could all probably work on our ability to accept change, whether it’s the decline of the state’s coal industry or the move to online distribution of news and information. As Sen. Byrd reminded us, we all need to try to embrace the future.

The other moment was then Commerce Secretary Keith Burdette got the question (full disclosure: I’m the one who scribbled this one onto an index card) that asked him to list specific steps that Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin and his administration have done to try to prepare the Southern West Virginia coalfields for the production decline that’s projected to continue for some time. Secretary Burdette kind of hemmed and hawed for a moment, and then, as I explained in our print story:

Secretary-Burdette“Well, look, I’d like to tell you there is some master scheme in every section of the state,” Burdette said. “But the challenge we have in the coal-producing areas of the state is that it’s a lucrative profession … it’s awfully difficult to motivate these folks into a different career path if the one they’ve enjoyed for so long might still be available.

“There is going to be a huge transition, regardless,” Burdette said. “As some of the fields play out, we will have communities that need to find a new way of life.”

The only specific effort Burdette could cite to help with that search was “Reconnecting McDowell,” a partnership to boost that county’s educational system as a path toward economic improvements.

“That’s probably [items] 1, 2 and 3 is that one effort,” Burdette said. “But if we can make it work there, we can make it work anywhere else in the state.”

On the one hand, it’s kind of surprising that Keith didn’t have an answer to this question prepared, given the topic of the event. But really, you also should respect the fact that he didn’t try to dodge around it, providing some prepared soundbite that pretends the administration has an easy answer — or that there is an easy answer. That one moment summarizes what anyone who has spent anytime trying to figure this one out knows: The future is going to be tough for our southern coalfields, and no one is exactly sure what to do to help them through it. If someone had an easy answer, we could implement it and move on.

There’s also, though, a pretty important problem with the part of Keith Burdette’s comment when he says, “it’s awfully difficult to motivate these folks into a different career path if the one they’ve enjoyed for so long might still be available.”

That’s all just fine, except that all indications are these kind of well-paying coal jobs are going to continue to become increasingly scarce in the southern coalfields. And the “war on coal” crowd among industry officials and their political friends is all about continuing a massive public relations campaign to convince coalfield residents that, if not for President Obama and the EPA, none of these jobs would be going away. The truth is that pretty much every estimate around shows a consistent decline in Southern West Virginia coal production, regardless of what Obama and EPA do or don’t do about mountaintop removal, coal ash, global warming or any of coal’s other externalized costs.

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rockefellersept2013

Yesterday, I spent part of the afternoon down in Bluefield, listening as Sen. Jay Rockefeller talked with black lung victims, miners’ health advocates and public health professionals about the black lung epidemic across our nation’s coalfields. It’s clear that Sen. Rockefeller is going to spend much of his remaining time in the Senate pushing on this issue and several other key matters relating to coal miner health, safety and financial security. Here’s part of our Gazette story on yesterday’s event:

Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., on Thursday gathered black lung victims and miners’ health advocates to continue a push for the Obama administration to finalize a rule aimed at ending the deadly diseases.

Rockefeller, D-W.Va., said he would rather see the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration finalize the rule on its own, without legislation that would face strong opposition from the mining industry.

“There is such a power of the coal industry almost totally over one party in Congress and some in my own party that makes change through legislation very difficult,” Rockefeller told reporters prior to a black lung “roundtable” discussion in Bluefield.

Rockefeller said that on Wednesday night he called the White House Office of Management and Budget to urge officials there to expedite their review of a draft final rule MSHA filed with OMB two weeks ago.

This morning’s Daily Mail also had a nice front-page spread, with a story by reporter Zack Harold, leading with this important thought from Sen. Rockefeller: If coal companies cannot afford to protect miners from black lung disease, Sen. Jay Rockefeller says they should go out of business.

Both during a short session with reporters prior to the event and during the roundtable discussion, Sen. Rockefeller harkened back to his previous criticisms (see here and here) of how the coal industry and some of its political friends have this single-minded focus on attacking the Obama administration. As we explained in today’s story:

Several times, Rockefeller also addressed questions about the campaign by coal industry publicists and some regional political leaders to paint the Obama administration’s U.S. Environmental Protection Agency policies as a “war on coal.”

“The president hasn’t waged a ‘war on coal’,” Rockefeller said. “Coal companies have made war on their own future.”

Rockefeller complained the industry has done little to help foster compromise on dealing with climate change or to push efforts to find cost-effective ways to capture greenhouse emissions from coal-fired power plants.

“All they can do is attack EPA and attack the president,” Rockefeller said. “That’s their whole deal. They suggest nothing. They have no ideas.”

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Coals War

Politicians in West Virginia aren’t the only ones continuing the misplaced focus on fighting the “war on coal.” It keeps coming up in Kentucky, too, as this piece from the Harlan Daily Enterprise shows:

U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, R-KY visited Harlan on Thursday for a public forum addressing issues affecting the county, including jobs, Obamacare and the war on coal.

Speaking to a large crowd at the Harlan Center, Paul, who is receiving attention as a potential candidate for the presidency in 2016, said the biggest problem Harlan County and Kentucky have is “we have a president who has declared war on coal, which is essentially a war on Harlan, a war on Kentucky and a war on jobs.”

“Every day I try to oppose what he (President Barrak Obama) is doing, but I’m one voice out of a 100,” said Paul. “We’ve stopped him from cap and trade and a carbon tax, but I think he will in all likelihood do it anyway. When he does, I’ll try to stop him from that.”

But a story in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette points out some things that are seldom mentioned in all of this rhetoric:

“It’s not a war on coal for warring on coal’s sake,” said David Spence, associate professor of law, politics and regulation at the University of Texas.

Rather, it’s kind of a perfect storm of actions that have been simmering for a long time.

Consider the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards, which were a major contributor to Akron, Ohio-based FirstEnergy Corp.’s decision to shutter 11 coal-fired power plants, including the Mitchell and Hatfield’s Ferry power stations in southwestern Pennsylvania.

Rules this complicated and consequential didn’t spring up overnight: Their seeds were planted in the Clean Air Act amendments signed in the early 1990s by then-President George H.W. Bush. The amendments called on the EPA to conduct a study that Congress would use to determine if regulating mercury and “air toxics” — hazardous air pollution — is appropriate.

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Will President Obama act on mine health and safety?

Obama Mine Explosion

President Barack Obama speaks during a memorial for the victims of the Upper Branch Mine explosion at the Beckley-Raleigh County Convention Center in Beckley, W.Va., Sunday, April 25, 2010. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

It’s been more than three years since President Obama came to West Virginia and, speaking at a memorial service for the 29 men killed in the worst coal-mining disaster in a generation, said these words:

How can a nation that relies on its miners not do everything in its power to protect them? How can we let anyone in this country put their lives at risk by simply showing up to work; by simply pursuing the American dream?

Since that terrible day in April 2010, the Obama administration, through the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration, has taken a variety of strong steps to protect the health and safety of coal miners — stepped-up “impact” inspections, a new pattern of violations rule, new requirements for better safety inspections by mine operators, and long-overdue updates to dust-control rules aimed at helping to prevent explosions and fires, just to name a couple. And it is an Obama-appointed U.S. Attorney, Booth Goodwin, who continues a broad criminal investigation into Upper Big Branch and the safety practices at the former Massey Energy.

But as we’ve written here before, several key mine safety initiatives — most importantly new rules aimed at helping to end black lung disease — have faced repeated delays and appear pretty well stalled. While West Virginia political leaders have been back at it again recently, slamming the Obama administration’s efforts to reduce coal-mining impacts and do something about global warming, you haven’t heard many of our elected officials — and certainly not the “Friends of Coal” crowd — objecting to delays in these life-saving programs.

Jay RockefellerNow, at least one West Virginia political leader is starting to press President Obama for some action. As we reported in this morning’s Gazette, Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., today sent a strongly worded letter to the president about the black lung rules and a pair of stalled regulations aimed at ending the needless deaths from crushing and pinning accidents in underground coal mines. Sen. Rockefeller told Obama:

I am extremely disappointed that rules designed to protect the health and safety of our nation’s coal miners appear to again be delayed in the release of the Spring Unified Regulatory Agenda.  I urge you in the strongest possible terms to direct your administration to move forward as expeditiously as possible on all of these issues, and to reaffirm your administration’s commitment to protect the health and safety of our nation’s coal miners.

 

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If W.Va. Democrats really want to help coal

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Gazette photo by Lawrence Pierce

Sometimes, it’s hard to know where West Virginia could really start in getting on the road toward even having a more reasonable discussion of the future of coal, let alone developing better policies for that future, to help coalfield communities truly prosper and do our state’s part to deal with the climate crisis.

Yesterday’s trip to Washington — and especially the media show that followed — was yet another missed opportunity for Sen. Manchin, Rep. Rahall, Gov. Tomblin, Speaker Miley and other leaders to stop muddling the facts, end the pandering and provide West Virginians with some straight talk about the problems ahead and the path toward a brighter future.

I’m reminded, as I often am, of the words of the late Sen. Robert C. Byrd, who advised West Virginians to embrace the future:

Change has been a constant throughout the history of our coal industry. West Virginians can choose to anticipate change and adapt to it, or resist and be overrun by it.  One thing is clear.  The time has arrived for the people of the Mountain State to think long and hard about which course they want to choose.

One way West Virginia could try to anticipate change and adapt to it is to become a leader — a real leader — on carbon capture and storage technology. I know, I know … CCS is too expensive. There are too many questions about whether it can be widely deployed, about whether it’s safe, about whether it really works. And, of course, just capturing carbon emissions doesn’t do anything to address the environmental damage from mountaintop removal or coal ash pollution, or the health costs to mine workers and the communities near mining operations.

But some pretty smart people still say CCS is something that our society here in the U.S. and around the world needs to pursue aggressively.

Environmentalists are fond of quoting the findings of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, so here’s what the IPCC said most recently about CCS:

To continue to extract and combust the world’s rich endowment of oil, coal, peat, and natural gas at current or increasing rates, and so release more of the stored carbon into the atmosphere, is no longer environmentally sustainable, unless carbon dioxide capture and storage (CCS) technologies currently being developed can be widely deployed.

 And here’s what the Union of Concerned Scientists said in a major report issued in October 2008:

An important potential benefit of developing CCS technology is that it may someday be applied to power plants that burn or gasify biomass (plant-based materials). Such a power plant could actually be carbonnegative because the plant matter comprising the biomass will have taken CO2 from the air through the process of  photosynthesis, and CCS technology will then capture the CO2 and store it underground. Having the ability to achieve negative CO2 emissions in future decades may well be needed if we are to keep global CO2 concentrations at relatively safe levels.

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The West Virginia Democrats go to Washington

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Photo from Twitter stream of Susan Miley.

That’s West Virginia Coal Association Vice President Chris Hamilton there in the middle, flanked by Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin and new House Speaker Tim Miley — three members of the delegation that had been billed as a trip by West Virginia Democratic Party leaders to meet with new Obama administration Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy and complain about the agency’s coal policies.

It’s probably  a sign that I’m not as cynical or experienced as I’d like to think that I was a little surprised that the delegation was so openly showing off how one of the state’s top coal lobbyists was right there with them both before, during and after this meeting with EPA and White House officials. You might have thought they would have  — just to have a little more credibility with EPA — have distanced themselves a tiny bit from coal companies, if the meeting was indeed not about helping the industry, but serving the people of our state.

Not for nothing, but UMWA official Bill Banig was there with the group as well. He was about the only one who emphasized that the tough issued facing our state’s coal industry aren’t somehow going to magically go away.

State Democratic Party Chairman Larry Puccio insisted that everyone is welcome to take part in discussion about the future of the state’s coal industry, but when asked he admitted that he hadn’t bothered to invite anyone from any of the state’s environmental organizations to tag along to meet with EPA.  Meanwhile, the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition was urging people to call EPA to say that the delegation doesn’t really represent all of the people of the great state of West Virginia.

Anyway, the dominant theme of the day will probably be that being reported right now by the AP’s Vicki Smith:

A face-to-face meeting with the new head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency creates an opportunity to “hit the reset button” when it comes to coal, several West Virginia Democrats who traveled to Washington said Thursday.

West Virginia leaders seemed to be trying to come off like they had a good meeting, maybe made a tiny bit of progress toward slowing down EPA rules aimed at limiting coal pollution, or at the very least made some personal connections with Ms. McCarthy that might help them moving forward. There was a lot of bashing of former EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson, who wasn’t around to defend herself, and some comments that I guess were meant as compliments for Ms. McCarthy. Speaker Miley, for example, told reporters in a post-meeting conference call:

She wasn’t just paying us lip service by being there. She could have sent a staffer to do that. She wasn’t just a potted plant, rolling her eyes or paying us lip service.

But then we heard the real thinking of West Virginia political leaders come out, with statements like this one, issued by Gov. Tomblin:

“Just days ago, Ms. McCarthy asked an audience at Harvard Law School, ‘Can we stop talking about environmental regulations killing jobs, please?’ Today, I took the opportunity to tell her that West Virginian’s will not stop talking about our jobs-and will not stop fighting for coal.”

Gov. Tomblin also noted in his remarks to McCarthy that hundreds of West Virginians are now out of work due to EPA’s overzealous, ideological, and financially devastating policies that have led to the closure of coal mines and coal-fired power plants in our state. McCarthy responded by promising to provide an open dialogue and consider the effects of policies on working men and women in West Virginia.

Again, Gov. Tomblin does a terrible disservice to coal miners, their families and the rest of us when he tries to boil down what’s happening in West Virginia’s coal industry to being only the fault of EPA.  What about the natural gas boom? What about competition from other coal basins? What about the fact that much of the good and easy-to-get West Virginia coal has already been mined?

There are a lot of factors at play here. If Gov. Tomblin doesn’t know that, then he’s not paying attention. If he does not it and refuses to talk about it, then he’s just misleading people.

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West Virginia vs. EPA: What about climate change?

Gina McCarthy

New U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy, left, takes questions from the audience after delivering a speech at Harvard Law School in Cambridge, Mass., Tuesday, July 30, 2013. During her speech, the first as the head of the EPA, McCarthy told an audience that curbing climate-altering pollution will strengthen the economy. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)

It was billed as big news yesterday, when the new Obama administration EPA administrator — Gina McCarthy — delivered her first public speech since being confirmed and sworn in. But was there really anything surprising in what she had to say, at least regarding coal and climate change?

The Washington Post reported:

The new head of the Environmental Protection Agency told an audience at Harvard Law School on Tuesday that cutting carbon pollution will “feed the economic agenda of this country” and vowed to work with industry leaders on shaping policies aimed at curbing global warming.

“Climate change will not be resolved overnight,” EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy told the 310-member audience. “But it will be engaged over the next three years. That I can promise you.”

According to The Boston Globe:

Speaking to an enthusiastic crowd at Harvard Law School — which included friends from McCarthy’s years as a top state environmental official under Mitt Romney and other governors — the Massachusetts native known for her blunt talk and pronounced Boston accent also said it was time to dispel the myth that environmental regulation hurts the economy.

“Can we stop talking about environmental regulations killing jobs?” she asked to loud applause from 310 attendees. “We need to cut carbon pollution to strengthen the economy; let’s talk about this positively.”

West Virginia’s response? Well, the speech was barely over when this statement from U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., popped into my email inbox:

I completely agree with Ms. McCarthy that clean energy technology will spur economic growth. Clean coal technology already is being used and it’s having a direct impact on our environment and our economy. In the last ten years, U.S. coal emissions have been reduced by 50 percent and coal-fired electric plants are expected to spend at least $80 billion by 2015 on new technologies to further reduce emissions. These investments would have an even greater impact on our economy and environment if we had a partner instead of an adversary in the federal government. Our own Energy Department says coal will generate nearly 36 percent of our electricity through 2040, so it just makes common sense to me, the people of West Virginia and the American people that, while we invest in renewable and biofuel technology, we also invest in making our most abundant natural resources cleaner.

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Member Exchange Business

The Gazette’s Dr. Paul Nyden has the story this morning about what West Virginia Democrats were billing yesterday as a major announcement regarding the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency:

State Democratic Party leaders, along with union and business leaders, announced Tuesday they are sending a 17-person delegation to Washington, D.C., August 1 in an effort to prevent new restrictions on coal-fired electric power plants.

Larry Puccio, chairman of the West Virginia Democratic Party, said this is the first time such a wide coalition is expressing concerns about tougher carbon emission regulations proposed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency under the Obama administration. West Virginia political leaders have expressed such concerns for years.

puccioPuccio is making out like this is really a big deal, as Dr. Nyden explained:

Next week’s visit to Washington is supported by the West Virginia AFL-CIO, West Virginia Chamber of Commerce, United Mine Workers of America and West Virginia Coal Association.

“This has never happened before,” Puccio said after the press conference. “This is not about politics. It is about people in West Virginia. We want to support our people.”

But it says a lot about the state of affairs in West Virginia that Democratic leaders felt the need to have a press conference just to announce that they’re going to have a meeting. Seriously.  How many meetings that are announced via press conference are serious, get-something-done meetings, rather than simply an effort to score public relations or political points?

It’s also fascinating that this move comes so soon after state Supreme Court Justice Robin Davis slammed the lack of vision and leadership among top state Democratic Party officials.  Of course, Justice Davis is herself a Democrat and statewide elected official. She’s a party leader, so why hasn’t she stepped in to generate some sort of real plan for the state’s future? Regardless, though, Larry Puccio’s explanation for the party’s lack of a candidate to face Rep. Shelley Moore Capito in the race for the U.S. Senate seat that Sen. Jay Rockefeller is vacating — that decisions about such candidates are made by the national party in Washington — seems a little thin, given that Puccio now thinks state Democrats, rather than an expert federal agency, should be making the call on major environmental policies.

But before anybody gets any silly ideas here, let’s be sure to reflect on what the West Virginia Republican Party said in response to the Democratic announcement:

Today, we saw a lot of disingenuous hypocrisy from liberals in West Virginia. Press conferences are a way for Democrats to distract from key issues and their steadfast support of anti-coal policies. But, facts are facts. The party of Obama and his endorsers who stood at the Governor’s office today have done everything possible to destroy the coal industry, raise energy prices, allow the government to take over health care and weaken our nation.

West Virginia Democrats “have done everything possible to destroy the coal industry“? Come now. Let’s be serious.

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Coal, politics and the Detroit bankruptcy

Member Exchange Business

Sometimes the political discussion around coal and energy policy here in West Virginia is simply baffling. While it’s easy to understand why rank-and-file coal miners and other working people are concerned about the future of the coalfields, it’s difficult to fathom the direction that Appalachian political leaders seem intent on going just about anytime the topic comes up.

Take today’s legislative interim meeting of the Joint Commission on Economic Development.

Lawmakers were being briefed by Jeff Herholdt, director of the Division of Energy, about his agency’s state Energy Plan. Now, never mind that the plan itself was finished in early March, and lawmakers are just getting around to talking about it.  And don’t worry about whether the plan really takes into account the threats of climate change and how our energy system contributes to that crisis — because, of course, Mr. Herholdt is a climate science denier who isn’t convinced human activity is really part of the problem. And it’s not worth looking at some of the interesting stuff in the energy plan — like the finding that West Virginia “has fallen behind its regional counterparts in terms of addressing its energy consumption through energy efficiency policy.”

What this meeting was all about was coal, and what the state should do to try to blunt the impact of what the industry continues to insist is the Obama administration’s “war on coal.”

And even within this discussion, it is always important to not let too many facts get in the way. For example, lawmakers didn’t seem to interested in Mr. Herholdt’s statement that most of the coal-fired power plants in West Virginia are “in better shape than other states” to comply with most of the new U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regulations.  What lawmakers really wanted to focus on were things like what Herholdt said were the Tomblin administration’s efforts “to change the direction of this country as far as the use of coal.” Herholdt said:

What’s not happening is getting the bigger picture issues resolved with coal.

And while that’s certainly true — there isn’t much happening on the state level regarding the “bigger picture issues” like reducing greenhouse emissions, addressing public health impacts of mountaintop removal or ending black lung disease — I’m not sure those sorts of things were what Jeff Herholdt had in mind.

No, state leaders are more focused on the sorts of things that had Sen. Ron Stollings upset when he heard that some of the utility plants in West Virginia don’t burn 100 percent West Virginia-produced coal. Or why, as Sen. Art Kirkendoll wondered aloud, the state isn’t out raising money to fund construction of a coal-to-liquids plant.

We heard precious little discussion about how state officials could try to work with EPA to soften the blow from the inevitable regulations to limit carbon dioxide emissions from existing coal-fired power plants.

It reminded me of part of a recent column that economist Paul Krugman had in the New York Times under the headline Detroit, the New Greece:

So was Detroit just uniquely irresponsible? Again, no. Detroit does seem to have had especially bad governance, but for the most part the city was just an innocent victim of market forces.

What? Market forces have victims? Of course they do. After all, free-market enthusiasts love to quote Joseph Schumpeter about the inevitability of “creative destruction” — but they and their audiences invariably picture themselves as being the creative destroyers, not the creatively destroyed. Well, guess what: Someone always ends up being the modern equivalent of a buggy-whip producer, and it might be you.

Sometimes the losers from economic change are individuals whose skills have become redundant; sometimes they’re companies, serving a market niche that no longer exists; and sometimes they’re whole cities that lose their place in the economic ecosystem. Decline happens.

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