Coal state senator says coal industry must adapt

 This post was contributed by Piper Corp, ESA Science Policy Analyst.

In a recent op-ed, West Virginia Senator Robert Byrd recently astonished the coal industry by criticizing its lack of flexibility and unwillingness to work constructively with the federal government.

The following excerpt summarizes much of the senator’s message:

Most people understand that America cannot meet its current energy needs without coal, but there is strong bi-partisan opposition in Congress to the mountaintop removal method of mining it. We have our work cut out for us in finding a prudent and profitable middle ground – but we will not reach it by using fear mongering, grandstanding and outrage as a strategy. As your United States Senator, I must represent the opinions and the best interests of the entire Mountain State, not just those of coal operators and southern coalfield residents who may be strident supporters of mountaintop removal mining.

Coming from a longtime coal supporter whose autobiography was entitled Robert C. Byrd: Child of the Appalachian Coalfields, the remarks have generated no shortage of concern among industry groups and other coal state lawmakers, particularly given the uncertainty generated by the climate and energy proposals in Congress and the regulatory actions being weighed by the Environmental Protection Agency.  But is Byrd truly taking an anti-coal stance?

Coal is of tremendous importance to West Virginia, where it provides 30,000 jobs and $3.5 billion in gross annual product. Although critics of the op-ed have in many cases assumed a tone of betrayal, Byrd’s hopes for the state are not so different from theirs. His main priority, it appears, is ensuring that West Virginia has a say in shaping climate and energy policy. Although he is clear that coal will continue to have a place in America’s energy portfolio, he sees its competitiveness as a function of how well it adapts to current demands. And the demand now is for cleaner energy:

The truth is that some form of climate legislation will likely become public policy because most American voters want a healthier environment.  Major coal-fired power plants and coal operators operating in West Virginia have wisely already embraced this reality and are making significant investments to prepare.  

In this context, the biggest threat to coal is not decisions made in Washington, but the unwillingness of the industry to make the changes necessary for it to compete with biomass and natural gas as a cleaner source of energy.  Further, Byrd argues that the industry’s resistance to regulatory action (e.g. restrictions on mountaintop mining) is hurting, rather than protecting, coal interests. A better strategy, he says, would be to cooperate with federal regulatory agencies, a move that could attract investors by increasing industry stability. Ending on a more hopeful note (but hinting that coal is not the only way to keep jobs in the state) the senator points to low-carbon and renewable energy projects already underway in his state, including both carbon capture and sequestration and alternative energy projects like wind power and biomass. He presents West Virginians with a choice-to “anticipate change and adapt to it, or resist and be overrun by it.”

As the most senior member of the Senate and a key player on coal, Byrd’s remarks may prove highly influential. Already, Senators John Kerry (D-MA), Joe Lieberman (I-CT), and Lindsey Graham (R-SC) quoted a portion of the op-ed in their climate framework, which they hope will guide the Senate’s latest attempt at climate legislation. In the “Ensuring a future for coal” section-one of eleven initiatives described in the framework-the lawmakers refer several times to the op-ed, including a portion of Byrd’s assertion that:

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.

Author: Nadine Lymn

ESA Director of Public Affairs

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