Sen. Byrd: Rigid Mindsets Pose Greatest Threat to Coal's Future

West Virginian Criticizes Coal Industry's 'Fear Mongering'

Dec 3, 2009

West Virginia Sen. Robert Byrd has been among the coal industry's staunchest defenders in Congress for over half a century, which makes the audio op/ed he issued today chastising some of the coal industry's behavior all the more powerful.

"The time has come to have an open and honest dialog about coal's future in West Virginia," Byrd says.

First, coal will survive, he tells his listeners. "No deliberate effort to do away with the coal industry could ever succeed" because there is no immediate replacement to meet the nation's vast energy need, says the 92-year-old senator, whose state is one of the top coal producers and among the most coal-reliant in the nation.

But the coal industry must change with the times, just as it has done before, he says. That means finding ways to lower emissions, improve the efficiency of coal power plants and develop technologies such as carbon capture and storage. There are fewer jobs in the coal fields now, he explains, because the admittedly controversial practice of mountaintop removal mining employs fewer miners, and because there is a declining national demand for energy, rising mining costs and erratic spot market prices.

In his statement, Byrd takes coal industry representatives to task for "stirring up public anger toward federal regulatory agencies," which he notes has only damaged the state's ability to work with those agencies and others on Capitol Hill for West Virginia's benefit.

Byrd, for one, has been working with his Democratic colleagues in the Senate to find ways to ease a future climate bill's impact on his state and its businesses. The nation's longest-serving senator doesn't subscribe to the "skeptic" strategy of attacking science and scientists.

"To deny the mounting science of climate change is to stick our heads in the sand," Byrd says. "The truth is that some form of climate legislation will likely become public policy because most American voters want a healthier environment."

Byrd also makes perfectly clear his disgust with the West Virginia Chamber of Commerce's suggestion that coal state Congress members block health-care reform legislation until their energy and climate bill demands are met:

"I believe that the notion of holding the health care of over 300 million Americans hostage in exchange for a handful of coal permits is beyond just being foolish; it is morally indefensible. It is a non-starter, and it puts the entire state of West Virginia and the coal industry in a terrible, a terrible, a terrible light.

"The greatest threats to the future of coal do not come from possible constraints on mountaintop removal mining or other environmental regulations, but rather they come from rigid mindsets, depleting coal reserves and the declining demand for coal as more power plants shift to biomass and natural gas as a way to reduce emissions."

Here is a transcript of the senator's op/ed, as he read it (audio):

Change is no stranger to the coal industry. Mechanization has increased coal production and revenue, but it has also eliminated jobs, hurting the economies of coal communities. In 1979, there were 62,500 coal miners in West Virginia. Today, there are about 22,000 coal miners in West Virginia. In recent years, West Virginia has seen record high coal production, record low coal employment. Change is undeniably upon the coal industry again.

The increased use of mountaintop removal mining means that fewer miners are needed to meet company production goals. Meanwhile the Central Appalachian coal seams that remain to be mined are becoming thinner and more costly to mine. Mountaintop removal mining, a declining national demand for energy, rising mining costs, erratic spot market prices — all of these add up to fewer jobs in the coal fields.

Now, these are real problems. They affect real people. And West Virginia's elected officials are rightly concerned about jobs and about the economic impact on local communities.

I share those concerns. But the time has come to have an open and honest dialog about coal's future in West Virginia.

Let's speak the truth — the truth and nothing but the truth. The most important factor in maintaining coal-related jobs is demand for coal. Scapegoating and stoking fear among workers over the permitting process is counter-productive.

Coal companies want a large stockpile of permits in their hip pockets because that implies — implies — stability to potential investors. But when coal industry representatives stir up public anger toward federal regulatory agencies, it can damage the state's ability to work with those agencies to West Virginia's benefit.

Let's speak a little more truth here. No deliberate effort to do away with the coal industry could ever succeed because there is no available alternative energy supply that could immediately supplant the use of coal for power generation in America. Now that is a stubborn fact that vexes — vexes, I say — some in the environmental community, but, I've got to say, it is utter reality.

It is also a reality that the practice of mountaintop removal mining has a diminishing constituency in Washington. It is confined to only three states. Most members of Congress, like most Americans, oppose the practice.

We may not yet fully understand the effects of mountaintop removal mining on the health of our citizens. West Virginians may demonstrate anger toward the Environmental Protection Agency, the EPA, over mountaintop removal mining, but we risk the very probable consequence of shouting ourselves out of any productive dialogue with the EPA and our adversaries here in the Congress.

Now, there are some who have even suggested that coal state representatives in Washington should block any advancement of national health care reform legislation until the coal industry's demands are met by the EPA. I believe that the notion of holding the health care of over 300 million Americans hostage in exchange for a handful of coal permits is beyond just being foolish; it is morally indefensible. It is a non-starter, and it puts the entire state of West Virginia and the coal industry in a terrible, a terrible, a terrible light.

As your United States Senator, I must represent the opinions and the best interests of the entire Mountain State, not just those interests of coal operators and southern coalfield residents who may be strident supporters of mountaintop removal mining.

Now listen to this. 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 not to say that but to stay at the table. The truth is that some form of climate legislation will likely become public policy because most American voters want a healthier environment.

I spent the past six months working with a group of coal state Democrats in the Senate drafting provisions to assist the coal industry in more easily transitioning, or changing, to a lower-carbon economy. We can have a part in shaping energy policy, but we have to be honest brokers. We have to be honest brokers if we have any prayer, even a prayer, of influencing coal policy and looming issues important to the future of coal, like hazardous air pollutants, climate change and federal dollars for investments in clean coal technology.

The greatest threats to the future of coal do not come from possible constraints on mountaintop removal mining or other environmental regulations, but rather they come from rigid mindsets, depleting coal reserves and the declining demand for coal as more power plants shift to biomass and natural gas as a way to reduce emissions.

Fortunately, West Virginia has a running head-start as an innovator. Low-carbon and renewable energy projects are already under development in West Virginia.

We have our work cut out for us in finding a prudent and profitable middle ground, but we will not reach that middle ground by using fear mongering, grandstanding and outrage as a strategy. Change has been a constant throughout the history of our country and throughout the history of our coal industry. West Virginians can choose to anticipate change and adapt to it, or they can choose to resist and be overrun by it.

One thing is clear: The time is now.

The time has arrived for the people of West Virginia to think long and to think hard about which course they want to choose.

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