Coal Tattoo

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West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin keeps doing his best to promote himself as some sort of reasonable, bipartisan deal-broker, using his “common sense” approach to various issues. This maneuvering led him yesterday to be the only Democratic Senator to oppose the confirmation of the woman his party’s president wants to run the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency during the second term of the Obama administration.

As we reported in today’s Gazette, Sen. Manchin admitted that his vote against Gina McCarthy had nothing to do with her qualifications. In fact, the senator conceded she was highly qualified, describing her as,  “a talented scientist who has dedicated her life to public service.” Sen. Manchin praised Ms. McCarthy’s “pragmatism,” her “willingness to serve her country” and her “stellar bipartisan credentials, an extremely rare quality in Washington these days.” Sen. Manchin noted that she had worked for both political parties, and with a very odd tone, the senator added:

In fact, it’s not hard to imagine that she could have been nominated to be EPA Administrator by Mitt Romney if he had won the 2012 Presidential election. After all, she advised him on climate change when he was Governor of Massachusetts.

But apparently good qualifications aren’t enough:

… My vote against her goes much deeper than her nomination, her views on energy and the environment or even her job performance the last four years as head of air policy at the EPA.

No, my vote against Gina McCarthy is really a vote against the Administration’s lack of any serious attempt to develop an energy strategy for America’s future.

We need to develop every source of American-made energy.

It’s only common sense to use what you’ve got.

There are any variety of problems with Sen. Manchin’s approach here, not the least of which is hypocrisy of criticizing the tone of coal industry critics by saying:

… If we stop demonizing  one energy resource, and I do mean demonizing it … when people say, “I hate this” or “I hate that” and “I can’t stand this” … you know what, turn the lights off, turn the air conditioning off, turn it all off and see how you like it …

I mean come on, just a few sentences before, Sen. Manchin was throwing around the coal industry’s terminology, making a policy discussion out to be an armed conflict:

The President often speaks about an “all-of-the-above” energy policy. But his new global climate proposal amounts to a true declaration of war on one of the above – coal.

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Sen. Manchin to vote against Obama EPA nominee

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West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin just finished up a quick floor speech in which he basically said that Gina McCarthy, President Obama’s nominee to run the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, is highly qualified for the post — but he’s going to vote against McCarthy’s confirmation anyway.

Sen. Manchin said:

My fight is not with her. My fight is truly with the agency itself, with the EPA and the president himself.

Sen. Manchin noted that McCarthy had advised Mitt Romney, the Republican nominee for president last year, on climate change issues when Romney was governor of Massachusetts and was well qualified to run EPA:

It’s not hard to imagine … this same lady could have been nominated to be the EPA administer if Mitt Romney would have won, by another president from another party.

But Sen. Manchin said he wants to make a point to the administration about his opposition to what he said is “a true declaration of war on coal” by the Obama White House:

The fight will continue until the EPA stops its over-regulatory rampage and until the president comes up with real policies that achieve energy independence The president plans to use the EPA to regulate the coal industry out of existence.  It really doesn’t matter that much who is sitting as administrator of EPA. It is the president who will be calling all of the shots in the administration.

 

 

 

Politics and power plants

Gazette photo by Kenny Kemp

That’s Senate President Jeff Kessler, D-Marshall, shown in the photo above. He’s offering some comments to the state Public Service Commission in support of Appalachian Power’s controversial proposal to acquire more ownership of two coal-fired power plants, including one at Moundsville, in Sen. Kessler’s district. Kessler told the PSC:

The jobs are here. The tax base is here. It just makes sense for the ownership to be here. It’s a viable and going source of tax dollars for the state as well as employment. It provides hundreds of jobs in our local community.

But then there’s the kicker — what about concerns expressed about the details of the $1 billion deal? Is it good for Appalachian Power customers and ratepayers? How does it affect West Virginia’s overall position in the evolving world energy market? Sen. Kessler didn’t have much to say about any of that:

I fail to see any of the downside. I’ll leave it to the numbers-crunchers to make that argument.

Now, Sen. Kessler has taken some strong moves in the direction of creating a better future for West Virginia, especially with his advocacy of some kind of a “future fund” that would use fossil fuel taxes to create long-term funding for educational, economic development and infrastructure projects to help diversify West Virginia’s economy.

But it was interesting to see him showing up at the PSC to talk about this Appalachian Power proposal, especially given the tone of two of the three speakers he aligned himself with.  One was West Virginia Coal Association President Bill Raney, who supported the power company’s proposal, saying it was one bright spot amid what he called the “all-out assault on coal” and coal-fired power plants. The other was coal miner Roger Horton, who speaker for a group he calls Citizens for Coal. Like Raney, Horton didn’t really address the issues in the case. He just talked about the importance of protecting coal jobs.

The problem here, of course, is that the not-too-subtle suggestion is that if the PSC turns down the Appalachian Power proposal, the John Amos and Mitchell power plants will close, taking with them the jobs of coal miners who produce fuel for those facilities.

But as Steve White, director of the Affiliated Construction Trades Foundation, testified yesterday morning, labor organizations have had no real indication from Appalachian Power that anything like that would happen. And as we reported in today’s Gazette, Appalachian Power President Charles Patton doesn’t think that’s what would happen if the PSC rules against his company.

In so many ways, this is all a political game, a little play in which career campaign consultants try to drum up opposition to the “war on coal” and political leaders and candidates feel the need to assert their allegiance to coal, whether the facts of the particular situation warrant taking that sort of position or not. West Virginia needs to have real discussions about its future, and the role the energy industry will — and won’t — play going forward. Creating those kinds of discussions is going to take real leadership, not political posturing.

Well, I see that the coal industry and its supporters are more intent than ever in trying to continue the strategy that failed for them during last year’s presidential election: Making the troubles in our nation’s coalfields all about some cooked-up notion of an Obama administration “war on coal.”

Someone calling himself “T.H.” from Ona, West Virginia, has launched a petition drive on the White House website to try to get the president to end his “war on coal.” The petition argues that President Obama has insulted “the generations of miners who made America the greatest nation in the world” and goes on to argue:

He has used executive orders to bypass Congress, imposing impossible standards that will raise the price of energy for all Americans. We call upon the President to apologize to American coal miners, past and present, and to implement policies and actions to encourage the use of coal – our most abundant and affordable resource – and protect our nation’s coal mining jobs to ensure America’s energy security.

As of this morning, the petition — launched on Saturday — had 770 signatures, meaning it needs another 99,230 by Aug. 11 to prompt the White House to provide an official response.

In many ways, though, the administration has already responded — though some of their response was silly floundering around during last year’s election, and the president has really never spoken directly to coalfield voters in a very serious way about the challenges their communities face.   But even recently, administration officials have explained that they’re simply trying to take appropriate steps to deal with many of the externalized costs of the coal industry including, most notably, greenhouse emissions. And the president’s recently announced climate change action plan tries to help the industry move in that direction, with $8 billion in new loan guarantees for fossil fuel projects, including carbon capture and storage technology.

But while the coal industry itself and most of its political supporters, along with the career campaign consultants, have only one message (that they hate Obama), the discussion is growing around the notion that the coalfields need to be looking for other alternatives.

Take for instance this story in the Daily Mail (yes, the Daily Mail) about the potential for West Virginia to develop a “future fund” to help with economic diversification:

West Virginia lawmakers soon will travel to North Dakota to learn about that state’s Legacy Fund, in hopes of establishing a similar savings program here.

The 2-year-old trust fund, built with oil and natural gas tax revenues, already contains more than $1 billion in assets. State officials aren’t allowed to touch that money until 2017, when interest generated from the account will flow into North Dakota’s general revenue fund.

… Senate President Jeff Kessler, D-Marshall, has long wanted to start a similar fund in West Virginia using natural gas tax revenues. And while West Virginia’s delegation could learn much from the Legacy Fund’s successes, they also should take note of some hard lessons North Dakota has learned along the way.

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There’s an interesting report out today from the minority staff (the Democrats) on the House Energy and Commerce Committee. Here’s what the press release says:

Today Energy and Commerce Committee Ranking Member Henry A. Waxman released a new report that compares the climate change voting records of members of Congress in the 112th Congress with the temperatures experienced in 2012 in the districts they currently represent. It finds a widespread “climate disconnect” in the voting records of the Republican members representing the districts most affected by the soaring temperatures in 2012.

“House Republicans are denying the science and disregarding the growing evidence of climate change,” said Rep. Waxman. “The longer Republicans refuse to take action, the more all Americans, including their own constituents, will suffer the extreme impacts of climate change. They are endangering present and future generations by their reckless refusal to listen to the scientists.”

The report finds that Republican members representing the districts most affected by record high temperatures cast anti-climate votes 96% of the time in the 112th Congress. No similar “climate disconnect” was found in the voting records of House Democrats. Democratic members representing districts most affected by high temperatures voted 86% of the time to uphold the Administration’s authority to address climate change or to act to address climate change.

West Virginia shows up in the report in two places. First, there’s this:

The Republican-represented congressional districts with the highest ratio of record high to record low temperatures in 2012 were Ohio’s 4th, West Virginia’s 1st, Michigan’s 3rd, New York’s 19th, Ohio’s 5th, Tennessee’s 2nd, Alabama’s 4th, Virginia’s 4th, Virginia’s 10th, and Georgia’s 3rd. Table 3 lists these ten congressional districts, the member that represents them, and the voting records of these members.

And if you look at that chart, you’ll see that 1st District Rep. David McKinley cast “anti-climate votes” 90 percent of the time. What exactly are these votes. Here’s the general description:

There were 53 climate-related votes on the House floor last Congress, 41 of which were roll-call votes. The Republican members representing the districts most affected by the high temperatures cast anti-climate votes 96% of the time. They voted to overturn EPA’s scientific findings that climate change endangers human health and welfare; to block EPA from regulating carbon pollution from power plants, oil refineries, and vehicles; to prevent the United States from participating in international climate negotiations; and even to cut funding for basic climate science.

And, well, here’s the other mention of West Virginia in the report:

The ten Democratic-represented congressional districts with the highest number of record temperatures were Iowa’s 1st and 2nd, Minnesota’s 7th, New Mexico’s 3rd, Wisconsin’s 3rd, Minnesota’s 1st, West Virginia’s 3rd, Maine’s 2nd, Mississippi’s 2nd, and Colorado’s 2nd. The Democratic members representing the districts with the most record high temperatures voted 79% of the time to uphold Administration authority to address climate change or to otherwise act to address climate change. Only two of the Democratic members representing these districts – Reps. Collin Peterson (MN-7) and Nick Rahall (WV-3) – voted for the anti-climate position more than half the time.

There’s an interactive map online here and the full voting database is here.

Today’s Gazette editorial puts it all pretty simply:

Right on cue, as soon as President Obama announced plans to combat air pollution that causes climate change, his opponents parroted criticisms, including the industry slogan “war on coal.” In states like West Virginia, that kind of talk is intended to scare elected officials and keep them pandering to coal interests.

But what do other Americans outside of the coalfields think? The Gazette editorial picks up on this editorial from the San Jose Mercury News:

President Barack Obama’s opponents have derisively called his plans announced last week to combat climate change a “war on coal.” It won’t be clear for months or years if that’s true, but Americans should sincerely hope that it is.

Obama’s strategy is limited by the need to bypass a do-nothing Congress, but it is a sweeping one. It includes a slew of small measures — such as increasing the gas mileage of heavy trucks and the energy efficiency of appliances and encouraging the development and use of renewable energy — that cumulatively will make a big difference in the volume of greenhouse gas emissions.

Its centerpiece, however, is Obama’s order to the Environmental Protection Agency to take the single most important step in the fight against global warming: Set limits on the amount of heat-trapping carbon that coal-fired power plants are allowed to spew into the air.

The EPA has a year to produce a first draft of the rules. That’s when we’ll know whether the Obama administration is serious about launching this necessary war.

The Gazette notes:

The new U.S. pollution crackdown signals more trouble for the coal industry — but Appalachia’s coalfields already are in decline, regardless of EPA rules against carbon fumes. Thick coal seams are becoming exhausted, and cheap Marcellus gas and cheap Western coal are grabbing markets. Appalachian coal is fading because of economic realities.

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Smokestacks at the Colstrip Steam Electric Station, are seen  Monday July 1, 2013, inm Colstrip, Mont. The plant emits an estimated 17 million tons of carbon dioxide annually _ emissions that President Barack Obama is looking to curb to combat climate change. (AP Photo/Matthew Brown)

It’s hardly surprising to see the Daily Mail and West Virginia MetroNews immediately launching into full-out attacks on President Obama’s climate policy. We’ve become accustomed to them falling in line with the coal industry’s “war on coal” rhetoric and public relations campaign. And let’s face it, much — not all, but much — of the media coverage of coal issues during last year’s presidential election failed to ask hard questions and present clear facts that voters could use to make decisions at the polls (see here and here).

But it’s disappointing to already see other pieces that  fall into the trap of writing about coal politics as if the point is to capture the horse-race aspect of it all — whether the president’s plan to try to deal with the climate crisis is good or bad for one political party or politician — rather than look more broadly at what it all means for coalfield communities. Take the one that the New York Times headlined G.O.P. Sees Opportunity for Election Gains in Obama’s Climate Change Policy, which started off like this:

When President Obama announced strong measures to combat climate change last week, environmentalists who felt he had long soft-pedaled the issue for political reasons rejoiced.

But many Republicans were just as gleeful — in the belief they had been handed a powerful issue to use against Democrats in the 2014 midterm elections in energy-rich states from Texas to Minnesota.

Elected officials and political analysts said the president’s crackdown on coal, the leading source of industrial greenhouse gases, could have consequences for Senate seats being vacated by retiring Democrats in West Virginia and South Dakota, for shaky Democratic incumbents like Mary L. Landrieu of energy-rich Louisiana, and for the Democratic challenger of Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader.

In ordering limits for the first time on carbon dioxide emissions from up-and-running power plants, Mr. Obama jabbed that opponents belonged to “the Flat Earth Society.” But in coal country, it was Mr. Obama who was called out of touch, with predictions of job losses and spiking energy bills.

Republicans immediately went on the attack against Democratic House members in mining states, posting Web ads with a 2008 sound bite of Mr. Obama predicting regulating carbon emissions would cause electricity prices to “necessarily skyrocket.”

Asked about the impact of the president’s actions on his own re-election prospects next year, Representative Nick J. Rahall II, Democrat of West Virginia, said, “They don’t help.”

It’s become increasingly difficult to feel sorry for Rep. Rahall. He’s given up any pretense of trying to protect the legacy of the federal Surface Mining Act, a landmark law whose final version he helped craft as a freshman congressman serving on a House-Senate conference committee some 36 years ago. Instead of speaking up for coalfield citizens who face increased risks of serious illnesses living near mountaintop removal sites, Rep. Rahall joins with Republicans to try to weaken crucial environmental and public health protections meant to guard against coal industry abuses.

More importantly, Rep. Rahall has begun pushing the envelop toward climate change denial, making no effort to provide a different narrative than the Republican candidates and career campaign consultants who have tried to hard for so long to unseat him.

More on that in a minute. Let’s to back and look at what the liberal media watchdog group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting said about that New York Times piece. Under the headline Obama’s ‘War on Coal’ Isn’t Real–But It’s Really in the Newspaper, FAIR explained:

It’d be nice if newspapers covered policy fights as if reality mattered. But corporate media generally prefers to cover politics as a form of public relations–which involves the creation of a reality that you think will help your side win … to the New York Times, the GOP’s political posturing and rhetoric matter more than this reality. “Republicans immediately went on the attack against Democratic House members in mining states,” readers learn. According to one person quoted, Obama “was already the most anti-coal president we’ve ever had, and now he’s doubled down.”

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Will W.Va. give Obama’s climate plan a chance?

Earlier this week, President Obama had barely finished his landmark speech outlining his new climate change action plan when the predictable press releases starting coming in from West Virginia’s political leadership.

Rep. Nick J. Rahall, D-W.Va., blasted the president’s plan as “misguided, misinformed and untenable,” but got left in the dust by Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., who said the administration’s announcement “is another move in the president’s tyrannical game of picking winners and losers in the energy industry.”

Tyrannical? Really? Those sorts of responses and that over-heated rhetoric have become what’s expected of our political leaders, as they all race to pledge allegiance to the coal industry and to appear as tough on Obama and EPA as they possibly can.

The day after President Obama’s announcement, I did a story about one terribly interesting aspect of the political reaction here in West Virginia: How leaders focused only on attacking Obama on behalf of the coal industry, while giving the administration no credit at all for the president’s very strong support of increased natural gas drilling. One source attributed this to West Virginians not really seeing ourselves as a natural gas state, at least not yet. But it seems to me that there’s more to it than that.

The coal industry’s public relations machine, and the industry-backing career campaign consultants have everyone in such a state of frenzy about the “war on coal” that it leaves little room for a real political discussion. And while there are so many aspects of the coal industry where external costs need to be internalized — mine safety, water pollution, public health, global climate — sometimes the focus on banning mountaintop removal or regulating coal ash sucks all of the air out of the room, making constructive discussion and progressive change impossible.

Part of the problem is within the industry itself. As the National Journal’s Coral Davenport explained in a thoughtful piece the other day, there’s a fight going on within the industry itself between a faction that wants to continue denying climate change — basically to launch and even broader “war on coal” campaign — and another group of operators that understands this route hasn’t been working on a national level and knows that trying to engage the Obama administration, and find ways to get enough funding and time to make CCS work, is really the only way coal survives in a carbon-constrained world.

But as a new poll (see also here, here and here) commissioned by the Union of Concerned Scientists shows (with results similar to a previous survey done for Appalachian Mountain Advocates) there’s actually plenty of support in West Virginia for finding ways to talk more holistically about coal and our economy and our future:

A substantial majority of West Virginians favor a proposal to increase taxes on coal operators to create a long-term fund to help diversify the state’s economy, according to a new survey conducted for the Union of Concerned Scientists.

More than two-thirds of those surveyed by Lake Research Associates support the idea of using natural resources taxes for a “future fund,” of the sort promoted by the West Virginia Center for Budget and Policy, a progressive think tank.

Sixty-nine percent of those polled support a 1 percent increase in coal taxes, while 19 percent opposed such a move. Seventy percent support setting aside a portion of natural gas taxes for the program, while 12 percent were opposed, according to survey results released Thursday …

The survey results generally reflect broad support for the coal industry, but also backing of measures to reduce pollution, such as strong enforcement of the federal Clean Water Act.

West Virginia native Jeremy Richardson, a physicist from a coal-mining family, really hit it when he explained the results of the poll the Union of Concerned Scientists did as part of his work examining coal and climate change and economic transition:

My hope is that this survey that we did will help change the conversation.  There is space for political leaders to argue that we’re not trying to kill the coal industry, we’re trying to create more opportunities for our kids.

We don’t know which faction will win the coal industry’s internal battle about the future. And so far West Virginia’s political leaders seem utterly unwilling to confront uncomfortable facts. But normal, everyday West Virginians seem to understand the situation, and they say they want to embrace the future … so maybe it’s up to them to bring the industry and elected officials along.

Citizens, activists and representatives of various coalfield environmental groups are gathering right now, just down the street, outside the Charleston field office of the U.S. Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement. They plan to rally there, and then march down to the state Capitol to Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin’s office. The media advisory says the groups are launching what they’re calling the “CARE Campaign,” which stands for “Citizen Action for Real Enforcement,” an effort to hold government agencies accountable “for their failure to respect citizens’ rights.” The media advisory explains:

Citizens have a right to expect protection by their government. West Virginia is failing to protect its citizens from chronic pollution, environmental degradation, human suffering and costs resulting from inadequate regulation of coal extraction by state government.

Decades of citizen efforts have not resulted in sufficient improvements to state government’s enforcement of mining laws, particularly around the devastating consequences for West Virginia communities of unenforced regulations for surface mining.

Today’s events are being held to call attention to this new petition, filed under Part 733 of the federal strip-mining regulations, urging that OSMRE take over regulation of coal mining in West Virginia. The petition alleges that the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection has “consistently and systematically failed to comply with SMCRA mandates intended to protect the State‘s residents and natural resources.” It notes:

While mining operations in West Virginia have been cited for at least 6,301 SMCRA violations since 2006, many more violations have been ignored and unenforced. West Virginia has failed to take action to address the systematic problems evidenced by these violations. These failures can no longer be tolerated. After thirty years of failure,  it is past time for OSM to assume control of SMCRA permitting, implementation, and enforcement in West Virginia.

The petition says:

The situation could not be more dire nor the stakes higher. In particular, since mountaintop removal mining has become common, West Virginia‘s failure to properly enforce its approved State program has enabled coal operators to use destructive mining practices that have devastated significant areas of its diverse, mountainous, and productive landscape. Forested mountain ridges and valleys have been flattened into moonscapes incapable of supporting any meaningful use or vegetation. Mountain streams have been permanently buried beneath the rubble of what were once mountaintops. Waters have been contaminated for generations to come.

These mining activities have caused communities and downstream areas to be subjected to increased flooding risks. Complete upstream watersheds have been rendered incapable of maintaining proper hydrological function. A huge portion of southern West Virginia has been permanently scarred by inadequately regulated mining and tens of thousands of additional acres are currently under permit or slated for permitting that would cause widespread additional significant harm to communities and their environment. Unless West Virginia‘s current illegal and ineffective implementation of SMCRA ceases and lawful administration and enforcement of SMCRA occurs, West Virginia‘s land, waters and wildlife will be either lost or permanently scarred and many communities will suffer the adverse economic, social and environmental impacts that SMCRA was specifically designed to prevent. This is unacceptable. OSM must act now.

 

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The Gazette’s Dr. Paul Nyden had the story in today’s newpaper:

During his second stint in Congress, Bob Inglis said Tuesday, his concerns about climate change grew.

The South Carolina Republican visited Antarctica twice, as part of congressional delegations. Those trips, he said, played a central role in convincing him about the validity of scientific research that global warming poses increasingly major risks to humanity and all forms of life around the world.

Inglis served three U.S. House terms between 1993 and 1999, then lost a bid for the Senate. He served another three House terms starting in 2003, and served as the ranking Republican on the House Science and Technology Committee’s Subcommittee on Energy and Environment. But he lost his 2010 bid for re-election.

“I got tossed out of Congress because of my position on climate change,” Inglis said during a visit to The Charleston Gazette newsroom on Tuesday. On Monday, he spoke at a West Virginia Boys State meeting at Jackson’s Mill, near Weston.

Rep. Inglis has his own ideas about how to combat climate change:

Inglis believes free-market economics should be applied to cutting carbon emissions.

“I voted against cap-and-trade legislation. It is hopelessly complicated,” Inglis said.

“You need to be accountable for all of your costs,” Inglis said, referring to future costs, including environmental damage.

“We need to put an ‘upstream tax’ at the mines and at the pipelines to pay for the social costs of [producing and transporting] fuel. We can increase costs of production and cut some taxes.”

But what I find most interesting is that Rep. Inglis has spent a fair amount of time trying to convince fellow Republicans and conservatives that they need to actually pay attention to the science when they deal with an issue like global warming. As the Climate Progress blog has explained previously:

“They slept at a Holiday Inn Express last night, and they’re experts on climate change.”

Yesterday morning, at a House hearing on climate change, Rep. Bob Inglis (R-SC) mocked his Republican colleagues for refusing to acknowledge the truth and danger of global warming. ThinkProgress has the story and video.

In June, Inglis became one of the first incumbent Republicans to be knocked off by a far-right insurgent Tea Party candidate. Since then, Inglis “” who has maintained a very high 93 percent lifetime rating from the American Conservative Union “” has blasted the GOP for using “racism” to whip voters into a frenzy, for “following those personalities [such as Fox News host Glenn Beck] and not leading,” and for deceiving voters with conspiracy theories about death panels and “preying on their fears.”

Or, as ClimateWire reported Inglis as saying:

Because 98 of the doctors say, “Do this thing,” two say, “Do the other.” So, it’s on the record. And we’re here with important decision to be made. And I would also suggest to my Free Enterprise colleagues “” especially conservatives here “” whether you think it’s all a bunch of hooey, what we’ve talked about in this committee, the Chinese don’t. And they plan on eating our lunch in this next century. They plan on innovating around these problems, and selling to us, and the rest of the world, the technology that’ll lead the 21st century. So we may just press the pause button here for several years, but China is pressing the fast-forward button. And as a result, if we wake up in several years and we say, “geez, this didn’t work very well for us. The two doctors didn’t turn out to be so right. 98 might have been the ones to listen to.” […]

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Mining lobby: ‘War on coal’ never resonated

There’s an interesting commentary from the National Mining Association’s Luke Popovich in the recent issue of Coal Age magazine about the “war on coal” campaign against the Obama administration and the recent federal appeals court decision upholding the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s authority to veto the Spruce Mine permit.

Much of the piece is an attack on the ruling (with no mention of the fact that the judges were all Republican appointees) and stripping industry of much-needed regulatory certainty:

… Now it will be not just coal companies that lack such assurance but all industries that use Sec. 404 permits. In one fell swoop, investing in domestic projects becomes as risky as investing in some banana republic or autocratic regime where assets can be nationalized and operations halted at the whim of officials beyond the reach of elected representatives.

Popovich goes on to insist that the “war on coal” campaign “was a battle cry of a determined but small army that lacked the firepower to win regulatory relief.” And, he writes:

… Anyway, ‘war on coal’ never resonated with much conviction among ordinary Americans. For them, the EPA keeps the air and water clean, their kids safe. The Appalachian permits the EPA held up, the Spruce Mine permit the agency yanked, the regulatory standard it proposed to slow greenhouse gas emissions and stop new coal plant construction — all that flew over the head of most voters who, let’s face it, know far more about the Kardashians than they do about coal.

So naturally, since arguing there is a “war on coal” didn’t work, the mining lobby is rethinking it’s strategy, right? Well, you might think so … but instead what Popovich proposes is an even broader campaign along those same lines:

… A ‘war on industry’ could become a more potent and plausible concern to members of Congress who can fix a bad court decision. At press time, Democrats as well as Republicans in West Virginia’s delegation were the first to promise legislative relief from a fine legal distinction that threatens coal and much more. Additional congressional members may join them as news of the ruling sinks in.

Aside from doubling down on a PR strategy that already failed, what the coal lobby is proposing here isn’t anything new. They already tried arguing that the EPA’s action to veto the Spruce Mine was an attack on all American businesses. For example, Rep. Bob Gibbs, R-Ohio, said two years ago during a House subcommittee hearing:

The issuance of a federal permit should come with some certainty that the activity can go forward unencumbered but within the bounds of the permit, particularly those activities on private lands.  This no longer seems to be the case and it is going to have a stifling effect on not just mining operations in Appalachia, but on economic development nationwide.

The National Mining Association itself tried this argument the very day that EPA first vetoed the Spruce Mine permit:

EPA’s veto of an existing, valid permit for the Spruce No. 1 mine threatens the certainty of all Section 404 permits—weakening the trust U.S. businesses and workers need to make investments and secure jobs. The Spruce permit was issued after a robust 10-year review, including an exhaustive Environmental Impact Statement. EPA participated fully in the comprehensive permitting process, and the project has abided by every permit requirement.

Only Friday we saw more evidence of the decline of Central Appalachian coal, with the announcement by Alpha Natural Resources that it was closing its Justice No. 1 Mine in Boone County. Alpha officials said this about their reasons:

… In an effort to continue to adapt to the challenging conditions in the coal market, today we idled the Justice #1 mine near Madison. Demand and pricing for the type of coal mined at Justice is very weak.

A keen reader reminded me of a story we published before last year’s election about the many projections that pointed years ago to what’s happening now in the Southern West Virginia coalfields. Here’s the relevant part of it:

… A 1995 report by the U.S. Bureau of Mines cautioned that, based on current production levels and known reserves, Boone County “will be able to sustain mining activities for no more than 20 years.”

Given the larger factors at play, do coalfield communities in Appalachia really need another divisive campaign built around calling political and regulatory matters a “war”? Or would the people here be better off if elected officials, business lobbyists and other leaders tried to bring people together to build the future?

Taking on the EPA: The latest from AG Morrisey

Photo via Patrick Morrisey for Attorney General Facebook page.

I had been meaning to point out to Coal Tattoo readers an important decision this week from the West Virginia Supreme Court (discussed here by the Gazette’s Kate White), because the ruling could impact the ongoing efforts of Attorney General Patrick Morrisey and other West Virginia officials to “take on the EPA” on behalf of West Virginia’s coal industry.

For our purposes here, the important part is Syllabus Point 3:

The Office of Attorney General retains inherent common law powers, when not expressly restricted or limited by statute. The extent of those powers is to be determined on a case-by-case basis. Insofar as the decision in Manchin v. Browning, 170 W. Va. 779, 296 S.E.2d 909 (1982), is inconsistent with this holding, it is expressly overruled.

But then the other evening, in response to me (partly in jest) asking AG Morrisey via Twitter if he was going to step in to try to protect the civil liberties of West Virginians from spying by the National Security Agency, the Attorney General (or someone tweeting on his behalf) let me have it in a series of tweets that have since been deleted from his political campaign feed:

— @Kenwardjr Do you have plans to retract all of the false articles you wrote about our authorities?

— As public official, I seek to be transparent and minimize errors. Wish certain members of the press corps do the same. #justadmityourerrors

— Last November, one member of the press corps insisted we were wrong about our assertion of authorities. He was all wrong. #noretractionyet

Regular readers will recall that I wrote one print story and two blog posts (here and here) last fall about AG Morrisey’s plans to fight Obama administration environmental regulations aimed at the coal industry. At the time, I wanted the Morrisey campaign (which had just won the November general election) to point out exactly what gave the Attorney General authority to challenge federal environmental rules, absent having the state DEP for a client.  The AG-elect’s staff wanted to avoid a debate on the issue, saying:

While we believe the Constitution and case law precedent provide authority to the Attorney General to act in various circumstances, it would be premature and disrespectful to the Governor to discuss the specific sources of such authority (which would vary based upon the facts of a case) before meeting with the Governor and the agencies so that we can speak with one voice.  As a state, the legal theories that we employ to defend our citizens will always take into account the facts of a particular matter.  We anticipate having a very collaborative relationship with the Governor and the agencies to work together to put West Virginia first.

Well, I wasn’t really sure exactly what it was that — seven months later — had the Attorney General so ticked off. So I asked his communications director Beth Ryan to explain the now-deleted tweets.  Here’s what she told me, via email:

The Attorney General was alluding to your statement that he refused to provide justification for his assertions related to the Office’s authority. In fact, the opposite is true. In November, Scott Will sent a copy of the 2002 Burton case to you, which outlines many of the activities that may be pursued by the Attorney General. No one is perfect, but when someone in good faith responds to a question, it isn’t right to say he hasn’t. The Attorney General relied upon the Burton case to present his perspective of how the Office might be able to act on myriad issues. The Supreme Court decision this week further buttresses everything the Attorney General has said.

OK. Now, for the record, the best of my recollection is that Scott Will did not provide me with a copy of the decision in the 2002 Burton case. And he did not cite that case in any on-the-record comments or statements either over the phone or via email. But it’s true that he mentioned that case — in a portion of an email to me which he marked very clearly as “Background and Not for Attribution.”  I’ll now make public that portion of his email, since the Attorney General has cited it in an on-the-record discussion with me. Here’s what Scott Will wrote “not for attribution“:

As you know, there has been a great deal of debate about the constitutional power of the WV Attorney General. The Legislature sought to restrain the AG’s authority in recent years, but the AG’s authority ultimately flows from the Constitution. We are not going to get into this before there is even any dispute. But the case law provides opportunity for the West Virginia Attorney General to act in certain situations, especially when he is not expressly preempted by law. Depending upon the factual situation, part of the holding of a case such as ex rel McGraw v. Burton might be cited regarding the AG’s authority. But unless there is a dispute, it is premature to raise these issues.

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A coal truck drives out of downtown Welch, W.Va., Wednesday, Feb. 9, 2011.  (AP Photo/Jon C. Hancock)

It’s pretty depressing to watch West Virginia’s Democratic Party — such as it is — run for the hills at the prospects of having to actually put up a candidate against Republican Rep. Shelley Moore Capito in the 2014 race for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by longtime U.S. Sen. Jay Rockefeller. Hoppy Kercheval painted an accurate picture of the situation:

Surely there should be established Democrats who have been paying their dues, anxiously awaiting a chance. But there aren’t.

But the really interesting take on this came from an Environment & Energy piece (subscription required) by Manuel Quinones. It was headlined “W.Va. Dems hopeful of finding pro-coal candidate to follow Rockefeller” and reported:

West Virginia Democratic Party Chairman Larry Puccio brushed off claims that the party was in dire straits in its efforts to find a candidate.

“The truth of the matter is, we have a couple of individuals who we believe will have a positive announcement in the near future,” Puccio said in an interview …

… Puccio, while not revealing names of candidates who have expressed their interest to run, said support for the state’s coal industry was an important test of electability.

“I think that’s extremely important in this state,” said Puccio. “And I will tell you, of the candidates who have spoken to me, they are all extremely supportive of coal in West Virginia.”

Both Hoppy’s commentary and the E&E story touted the potential candidacy — one that is apparently not in the cards anymore — of Charleston lawyer Nick Preservati. Hoppy wrote:

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has personally recruited the Charleston lawyer, believing that he can run as a business-friendly, pro-life Democrat who has a strong connection to the coal industry. His father, Dick, is a successful coal operator who made millions when he sold his holdings to Luxembourg-based ArcelorMittal.

 And E&E reported:

“I think with or without Preservati, this was looking like a really difficult hold for Democrats,” said Nathan Gonzalez, campaign analyst with the nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report, which has the West Virginia Senate race leaning in favor of the Republicans.

Gonzalez said Democrats “were excited about Preservati and his family’s connection to the coal industry, but the political reality is that it’s going to take a special Democratic candidate to win in West Virginia in the second midterm of President Obama in the White House.”

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Gazette photo by Kenny Kemp

If you missed the news Friday afternoon, West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey announced that he and Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin had filed a “friend of the court” brief asking the U.S. Supreme Court to take in a case that challenges the federal Environmental Protection Agency’s latest rulemaking on greenhouse gas emissions. AG Morrisey’s prepared statement said:

The amicus brief asking for a writ of certiorari was filed Thursday, May 23, and follows a ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia in favor of the EPA in four consolidated cases. If allowed to stand, the D.C. Circuit’s ruling will fundamentally alter the Constitution’s separation of powers and grant unprecedented authority to the EPA and other federal agencies.

Significantly, the states contend the EPA’s “tailoring rule” contradicts explicit provisions of the Clean Air Act and establishes new compliance levels for greenhouse gas emissions that are significantly higher than the levels specified in the statute.

Now, make no mistake, what this case is really about it an all-out effort by conservative groups and some states to overturn the Supreme Court’s 2007 ruling in Massachusetts v. EPA that the federal agency has a duty to regulate greenhouse gas emissions. As a Reuters analysis explained:

The petitions give the court various options for cutting back on, or even overturning the 2007 ruling, according to John Dernbach, a law professor at Widener University in Pennsylvania, who represented climate scientists in the 2007 case.

If the court decides to hear any of the petitions, it “would be opening a really big can of worms,” he said.

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Rep. McKinley brings the climate deniers to town

Rep. David McKinley has been pretty clear about where he stands on climate change and the need to do anything about it. The West Virginia Republican most recently said, in response to President Obama’s State of the Union address earlier this year:

The President’s focus on climate change is just code to justify his war on coal and other fossil fuels. While I agree that climate change is taking place, the question is what causes it. Is it man-made or natural? Despite the inconclusive science, the President made it clear he will take action that would cause considerable damage to our already weak economy.

On the other hand, as I wrote after those remarks, that might have been progress toward accepting reality:

It’s possible this is a minor shift in Rep. McKinley’s position. He’s previously appeared to question whether the climate is changing, but now appears to have backed off that (see here and here).

So, ever optimistic and hopeful, I was pleasantly surprised at first glance when I saw that Rep. McKinley had announced “a panel of distinguished experts in the field of climate science” to discuss the “Origins and Response to Climate Change” during a forum next week in Fairmont.

Here you had Rep. McKinley inviting Colorado State University climatologist Scott Denning and Jim Hurrell, a senior atmospheric scientist with the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR), to the event. The list of speakers also includes someone from the World Resources Institute and the Environmental Defense Fund.

But then I looked more closely at the press release from Rep. McKinley. The other speakers included well-known climate change deniers like Marc Morano, Myron Ebell, and John Christy, as well as someone from the Heritage Foundation and Dennis Avery, author of “Unstoppable Global Warming Every 1,500 Years”.

Keep in mind that a recent analysis of nearly 12,000 scientific papers found a 97 percent consensus that humans are causing global warming. President Obama’s new energy secretary,  Ernest Moniz, said this week:

Let me make it very clear that there is no ambiguity in terms of the scientific basis calling for a prudent response on climate change. I am not interested in debating what is not debatable. There is plenty to debate as we try and move forward on our climate agenda.

Remember what Sen. Robert C. Byrd said back in December 2009:

To be part of any solution, one must first acknowledge a problem. To deny the mounting science of climate change is to stick our heads in the sand and say “deal me out.” West Virginia would be much smarter to stay at the table.

And what Sen. Jay Rockefeller said just last year:

… The shift to a lower carbon economy is not going away and it’s a disservice to coal miners and their families to pretend that it is. Coal company operators deny that we need to do anything to address climate change despite the established scientific consensus and mounting national desire for a cleaner, healthier environment.

Hoppy confirms it: Rep. Rahall is NOT anti-coal

It’s been mildly amusing over the years to watch the Republicans try time and again to take down longtime Southern West Virginia Democrat Nick Rahall. Their recent efforts to get Rep. Rahall have focused on the absurd allegation that he doesn’t support the coal industry.

Most recently, the West Virginia GOP has been trying to call attention to a vote Rep. Rahall made on something that the House Progressive Caucus dubbed the “Back to Work Budget.”

The first release I saw about this screamed: Nick Rahall just declared war on coal! The National Republican Congressional Campaign Committee said in that release:

With his vote for the ultra-liberal ‘Progressive Budget,’ Nick Rahall just declared war on West Virginia’s coal industry and the hard-working West Virginians that depend on that industry to put food on their families’ tables. Rahall needs to explain exactly why he decided to turn his back on West Virginia with this devastating and irresponsible vote.

Now first things first, and let’s be clear that this budget (which failed) was an effort by the more liberal Democrats in the House to respond to Republican Paul Ryan’s budget. In explaining the proposal, the Economic Policy Institute said:

It builds on recent CPC budget alternatives in prioritizing near-term job creation, financing public investments, strengthening the middle class, raising adequate revenue to meet budgetary needs while restoring fairness to the tax code, protecting social insurance programs, and ensuring fiscal sustainability.

But what has the Republicans so worked up is that the proposal also dares to suggest that the country do more to try to combat the climate crisis, with this:

To reduce the emission of greenhouse gases and yield significant revenue on an annual basis, the budget would price carbon emissions starting at $25 per metric ton in 2014 and indexed at a 5.6 annual rate. Because pricing carbon has the potential to be regressive, the Back to Work budget would rebate 25 percent of the revenue from carbon abatement as refundable credits to low- and middle-income households. Net of this rebate, carbon pricing would raise over $1.1 trillion of revenue over FY2014–2023.

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This morning’s story from West Virginia Public Broadcasting about the massive mountaintop removal mining project proposed as part of the King Coal Highway started off well enough:

Sen. Ron Stollings was admitting that Southern West Virginia is facing “a depleting economy with coal”  and Steve Kominar, executive director of the Mingo County Redevelopment Authority, said what should be obvious — but that few of our state’s leaders like to admit:

We’ve got to have an economy for West Virginia for life after coal. Coal is quickly depleting and if we don’t do that, than what have we left our children and grandchildren.

It’s good to hear from folks at the Mingo County Redevelopment Authority, one of the few local groups that has really tried — especially under the leadership of the late Mike Whitt — to focus on these issues, and to find ways to bring new jobs and a brighter future to our West Virginia coalfields. And the Buffalo Mountain Surface Mine permit that CONSOL Energy proposes as part of the highway project is certainly a timely topic, as the comment period on the latest environmental study is coming to a close.

Unfortunately, this story goes downhill pretty quickly:

Kominar said Consol has been fighting for the permit since 2007 and believes the EPA is doing everything it can to stop or stall the permit’s approval. Both the Army Corps of Engineers and the Federal Highways Administration have signed off on the environmental impact study that details how Consol will maintain run off and address water quality issues, but Kominar said that hasn’t been enough.

“… They say it’s an environmental concern, but their argument holds no credence. There’s no scientific evidence to back up what the EPA is saying except emotional testimony by people to say, well, it’s going to cause this or it’s going to cause that,”  he replied.

“We live here, we breathe this air, we drink this water. We obviously don’t want to destroy ourselves. There’s no evidence to prove that what some of the antis are saying is actually valid,” Kominar said.

“We’ve done hydrological surveys on water systems prior to mining, during mining and after mining, and without fail we found every time that the water quality during mining was a lot better than prior to mining, and was obviously a lot better after mining

Let’s be clear on what public broadcasting reported — without presenting anyone questioning it — There’s no evidence to prove that the kind of mining CONSOL is proposing here damages the environment?

No evidence? It’s hard to know where to start here. But there certainly is a lot of evidence in the peer-reviewed literature that shows large-scale surface mining is linked to pervasive and irreversible impacts on water quality.

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Earlier this week, I was struck by a line in a New York Times piece about the terrible tragedy in Burkesville, Ky., where a 5-year-old boy shot and killed his 2-year-old sister with a gun marketed for children as “My First Rifle.” Here’s the part of the story that stopped me as I was reading:

The death has convulsed this rural community of 1,800 in south-central Kentucky, where everyone seems to know the extended Sparks family, which is now riven by grief. But as mourners gathered for Caroline’s funeral on Saturday, there were equally strong emotions directed at the outside world, which has been quick to pass judgment on the parents and a way of life in which many see nothing unusual about introducing children to firearms while they are still in kindergarten.

Now, I’m not necessarily that keen on the way the Times tends to frame its stories from places like Kentucky and West Virginia. There’s always this tone of “the other” as if we’re some far-away land that these city folk can’t possibly understand. But if the out-of-town media treats us as almost like aliens, it’s because we — and especially some of our political leaders — keep telling the rest of the country that our “culture” is so different, that our “way of life” is something they can’t comprehend.

I’m not saying that folks who have lived their whole lives in New York City or in the beltway bubble around Washington, D.C., necessarily understand Southern West Virginia. And I’m not even claiming that I always understand things in our southern coalfields very well, either. I’m not from there and I live comfortably in Charleston, not in McDowell County.

But don’t you think that the parents of Kristian and Caroline Sparks are equally devastated by their daughter’s death as the parents whose kids were massacred last December at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.? Sure they are.

And in both instances — a terrible accident where a little boy shoots his sister and a massacre by a troubled young man armed with military weapons — there are policy initiatives that can reduce the changes of either type of event from happening again. As Sen. Manchin is bravely trying to do, the country could make firearms harder to get, especially for criminals and the mentally ill. And, West Virginia could take steps that would make it less likely that kids would end up with guns in the first place, so what happened in Kentucky doesn’t happen here. That’s part of the problem I had with the Times story. It focused on this issue of the rural gun “culture” through the lens of holding these particular parents responsible, rather than with a view toward preventing the next tragedy.

Now I know, this is a blog about coal … and this blog post is about coal. Stick with me and we’ll get there.

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In this aerial photo, part of the work already done at the site of the Spruce Mine can be seen alongside Pigeonroost Hollow, at right. Photo by Vivian Stockman, flyover courtesy of Southwings.

It’s certainly not surprising that the Daily Mail and Hoppy Kercheval both pounced earlier this week on the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals decision that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in fact does have legal authority to veto a mountaintop removal permit issued by the federal Army Corps of Engineers.

Both of these coal industry defenders managed to do so without mentioning that the decision came from a panel of three judges appointed by some of their favorite presidents. Never much for nuance, the Daily Mail’s editorial writers declared that the ruling “will end coal mining.” Hoppy went off onto some thing about M.C. Escher which had the feel of a college freshman reaching for a smart analogy.

And it was certainly not surprising that West Virginia political leaders reacted the way they did to this ruling.  We ran through some of the problems with their narrative the other day. But it’s worth mentioning this all again, now that Sens. Jay Rockefeller and Joe Manchin, both D-W.Va., have reintroduced something they have decided to again call the “EPA Fair Play Act.” The bill’s official purpose is this:

To amend the Federal Water Pollution Control Act to clarify and confirm the authority of the Environmental Protection Agency to deny or restrict the use of defined areas as disposal sites for the discharge of dredged or fill material.

To clarify and confirm EPA’s authority. Not so much.  What the bill actually does is strip EPA of authority that three Republican judges have said is clearly in the current Clean Water Act passed by Congress 40 years ago. The text of the original version of the legislation is online here. This is how it changes the key section of the Clean Water Act, Section 404(c):

The Administrator   Until such time as a permit under this section has been issued by the Secretary, the Administrator is authorized to prohibit the specification (including the withdrawal of specification) of any defined area as a disposal site, and he is authorized to deny or restrict the use of any defined area for specification (including the withdrawal of specification) as a disposal site, whenever he determines, after notice and opportunity for public hearings, that the discharge of such materials into such area will have an unacceptable adverse effect on municipal water supplies, shellfish beds and fishery areas (including spawning and breeding areas), wildlife, or recreational areas. Before making such determination, the Administrator shall consult with the Secretary. The Administrator shall set forth in writing and make public his findings and his reasons for making any determination under this subsection.

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Sen. Rockefeller reintroduces mine safety bill

This just in:

Senator Jay Rockefeller today reintroduced his landmark mine safety legislation aimed at fixing the glaring safety issues revealed in the wake of the Upper Big Branch mine disaster on April 5, 2010, which claimed the lives of 29 miners in Montcoal, West Virginia. Senator Joe Manchin cosponsored the legislation.

The Robert C. Byrd Mine and Workplace Safety and Health Act was first introduced in 2010, and again in 2011 and 2012.

Sen. Rockefeller said:

Since the terrible tragedy at Upper Big Branch more than three years ago, some crucial steps have been taken to improve mine safety, but we are long overdue to make an even bigger leap forward by passing comprehensive mine safety legislation. We owe it to families of the victims at Upper Big Branch, and to the miners of today and tomorrow, to pass mine safety legislation that moves us more strongly ahead. Coal miners’ loved ones give thanks for answered prayers every time they walk through the front door. We should be constantly vigilant for that safe return home. We cannot wait for another tragedy before we act. The time is now.

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