CHARLESTON (AP) — U.S. Sen. Jay Rockefeller believes that pressing ahead on mine safety and miners’ health can advance the debate over the future of coal, and he wants the industry to abandon what he considers a combative and close-minded approach to that discussion, the West Virginia Democrat told The Associated Press in a recent interview.
The state’s senior senator said industry leaders and their political allies have focused on President Barack Obama and his U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to the exclusion of the other forces sapping demand for this fossil fuel.
But Rockefeller has also reached out to the industry for help drafting upcoming legislation to promote ways to harness coal’s energy without releasing so much carbon dioxide.
“I believe clean coal has a future,” Rockefeller told the AP. “I’m not against coal. I’m against their refusal to recognize what their future is, and their decision to focus all of their attention and all of their money on saying, ‘You’re either against the EPA or you’re not.’”
Rockefeller blasted the industry’s talk of a “war on coal” in June remarks on the Senate floor. He decried what he views as a “daily onslaught” of “carefully orchestrated messages that strike fear in the hearts of West Virginians and feed uncertainty about coal’s future.”
“I thought it was very important to call out the coal operators for being so negative,” Rockefeller said. “It’s having such a damaging effect.”
A variety of factors have combined to stymie the industry. Natural gas prices hit 10-year lows in April, a month when government data show natural-gas fired power generation equaled coal-powered generation for the first time on record. A mild winter also reduced demand. European economic woes and signs of cooling growth in Asia, meanwhile, threaten coal exports.
Alpha Natural Resources Inc., a leading coal producer, blamed such market forces last week when it reported a $2.2 billion second-quarter loss to stockholders.
“The facts are that natural gas is eating coal’s lunch right now, and that will continue while their prices are low,” Rockefeller told the AP.
President Bill Raney of the West Virginia Coal Association said his group greeted Rockefeller’s remarks about the industry with “a great deal of disappointment.”
Raney cited several federal court rulings that he said underscore its concerns with the EPA. One, issued late last month, found that the EPA had overstepped its powers by setting up water-quality criteria for Appalachian coal mining operations.
West Virginia’s Department of Environmental Protection helped bring that legal challenge. It has sharply criticized EPA’s actions in the state, a view shared by other Democrats such as Sen. Joe Manchin and Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin.
Raney traces EPA’s objection-raising behavior to the day Obama took office in January 2009.
“They’re just bullying the state, they’re bullying the companies,” Raney said. “The reason that we spend so much time talking about EPA is because with these guys (in the industry), it is with them every day.”
Raney also cited the industry’s championing of the new Longview Power plant as evidence of its focus on the future. The state-of-the-art Morgantown facility is West Virginia’s first coal-fired plant in 18 years. The industry also recognizes the “perfect storm” of market forces at play, Raney said, but he argues that EPA is worsening that tough climate by increasing the costs of mining and using coal.
Rockefeller said federal court rulings also explain EPA’s actions. Those include a 2007 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court allowing EPA to regulate greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act. Burning coal and other fossil fuels releases large amounts of carbon dioxide and other gases blamed for climate change.
“You don’t stop coal. Coal is necessary,” Rockefeller said. “But you can’t talk about coal mining without discussing health, or anything that deals with emissions.”
Rockefeller recently reintroduced a wide-ranging safety measure that responds to the 2010 Upper Big Branch mine disaster, which killed 29 miners. It includes greater whistleblower protections, harsher penalties for criminal safety violations and a revamped system for declaring a pattern of violations at a mine with chronic safety problems.
That bill also calls for a stricter limit on breathable coal dust, and a revisiting of that standard every five years. This dust causes black lung, an irreversible disease that has contributed to the deaths of more than 70,000 miners since 1970. MSHA’s investigation found that at least 17 of the miners killed at Upper Big Branch — nearly two-thirds of those whose remains had enough lung tissue for testing — had signs of black lung.
“All of the sudden you’re seeing this huge uptick in black lung, particularly among young miners,” Rockefeller said. “You have to get respirable dust at a much lower level.”