Rockefeller says coal industry needs to 'face reality'
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- West Virginia coal operators must stop shrugging off climate change and pollution-related health problems to "face reality" about the future of coal, Sen. Jay Rockefeller said in a stern and stunning speech on the Senate floor Wednesday.
Rockefeller, D-W.Va., accused the coal industry of scare tactics. He said after years of industry opposition to new environmental regulations, the "bitterness of the fight has taken on more importance than any potential solution."
"The dialogue on coal, its impact and federal government's role has reached a stunningly fevered pitch -- carefully orchestrated messages that strike fear into the hearts of West Virginians and feed uncertainty about coal's future are the subject of millions of dollars of paid television ads, billboards, break room bulletin boards, public meetings, letters and lobbying campaigns," he said.
"A daily onslaught declares that coal is under siege from harmful outside sources and that the future of the state is bleak unless we somehow turn back the clock, ignore the present and block the future."
Rockefeller's remarks came amid an attempt by the Senate to stop the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency from enforcing its new Mercury and Air Toxic Standards Rule.
Rockefeller, as he made clear in his remarks, opposed the effort to block the rule.
But his colleague, Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., supported the attempt to block the rule, which Manchin said is part of "EPA's jobs-killing agenda."
The new EPA rule is targeted at reducing emissions, particularly mercury, from coal-fired power plants nationwide. The regulatory agency expects the rule to avert 11,000 pollution-related premature deaths. Rockefeller said pollution-related health concerns were being "demeaned" in the whole debate over the rule, which will also increase utility costs.
Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., said Rockefeller's remarks were historic and courageous."I believe when the next historian writes a book about leadership, courage and integrity in the United States Senate that this speech today will be featured in that book," she said. "And I'm so proud to know you, senator."
Members of the business community were shocked by Rockefeller's speech, said West Virginia Chamber of Commerce President Steve Roberts said.
When a reporter called, Roberts answered his phone, "This is Capito for United States Senate headquarters."
Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., is considered a possible U.S. Senate candidate. Rockefeller is next on the ballot in 2014 - if he runs again.
Rockefeller's remarks were similar to the stern message the late Sen. Robert Byrd delivered in 2009, at the end of Byrd's long, pro-coal career.
Byrd said the coal industry needed to stop using "fear mongering, grandstanding and outrage as a strategy" and instead help stave off global climate change and curb mountaintop removal mining.
Like Byrd's message, Rockefeller's speech seemed destined to be quoted again and again by those who agree. Both messages tell the industry to change itself and both are by senators who worked repeatedly on behalf of coal industry interests.
Maria Gunnoe, a community organizer in Boone County who works to end mountaintop removal, said she couldn't stop reading Rockefeller's speech.
"I was just reading it for the fifth time," she said in a telephone interview Wednesday evening. "I can't quit reading it, actually. I've read it and thought about it and go back to it and read it again."
Gunnoe said Rockefeller "truly cares" about people in mining communities. .
Rockefeller used blunt broadsides and jabs to criticize the current generation of coal operators.
He compared today's coal executives unfavorably to Bobby Brown, a former Consolidated Coal Co. executive who Rockefeller called a "courageous, non-timid man" for his dealings with unions.
By contrast, Rockefeller said of today's executives, "almost none have the courage" to speak out for change, even though change has been "staring them in the face for decades."
"All I can say is that we're deeply disappointed in his vote," said Ted Pile, spokesman for Alpha Natural Resources, the state's largest coal company.
Rockefeller compared coal operators to the American automobile industry, which he said also resisted change for too long.
The change Rockefeller is talking about is a shift in production away from West Virginia's southern coalfields, a move by utilities away from coal to natural gas and the move by regulators and lawmakers toward rules to reduce the release of climate-changing gases from coal-fired power plants.
But instead of talking about that, Rockefeller said coal operators were using the EPA as an "easy target" upon which to pin the coal industry's several woes.
"Despite the barrage of ads, the EPA alone is not going to make or break coal," Rockefeller said.
Industry public statements and advertising campaigns -- not to mention statements from politicians sympathetic to the industry -- have focused on the role of environmental regulations, particularly those backed by President Barack Obama's administration.
But the coal companies themselves have actually acknowledged in financial filings that a significant portion of their current woes are related to market conditions -- ranging from the warm winter and low demand to cheap natural gas -- and not just regulations.
In the speech, Rockefeller did not offer many options of his own for the coal industry to take in the future, but he said coal operators' ongoing fight against regulations would "lock away more of their failure" because they are fighting and not adapting to new conditions.
Mainly, Rockefeller argued the current dialogue and opposition to regulations was doing a disservice to the state, the industry and miners themselves.
"Third," Rockefeller said, "the shift to a lower carbon economy is not going away and it's a disservice -- a terrible disservice -- to coal miners and their families to pretend that it is, to tell them that it is, that everything can be as it was: It can't be. That's over. Coal company operators deny that we need to do anything to address climate change despite the established scientific consensus and mounting national desire -- including in West Virginia -- for a cleaner, healthier environment."
West Virginia Coal Association Vice President Jason Bostic said he thought it was clear the Obama administration was not a friend to coal mining, particularly Appalachian mining. He said it didn't make sense to accuse the industry of fear mongering because the mineworkers union also opposed the EPA rule.
"How dare a U.S. senator accuse organizations as broad as the United Mine Workers and the Coal Association of fear mongering," Bostic said. "If it's real, how can it be fear mongering?"
The mercury rule has been in the making for more than a decade. It is among the most expensive rules ever issued by the EPA, according to the Congressional Research Service.
The EPA estimates it will cost nearly $10 billion a year to reduce mercury emissions, although industry estimates are higher. But the EPA also estimates the rule will save tens of billions each year by avoiding 11,000 premature deaths, tens of thousands of asthma attacks and development disabilities for children.
In a floor speech of his own, Manchin said the rule was unreasonable and would raise utility rates and throw thousands of people out of work. Capito said she didn't agree with Rockefeller that the industry is only looking back. She noted research to make coal cleaner burning and to make mines safer.
Back in West Virginia, business and industry leaders were dismayed by Rockefeller's vote and speech, Roberts said.
Roberts said he felt Rockefeller ignored his constituents and cast a vote that "is disappointing in unbelievable terms."
"Not only a vote, but a speech that is reverberating through the coal community in ways that I really haven't seen another very senior United States senator give anti-coal speeches," Roberts said, referring to Byrd's end-of-career remarks.
Roberts said he didn't think Rockefeller's remarks would be helpful to other Democrats in an election year.
"In case I'm not direct enough: I think this potentially hurts other Democrats on the ticket because at some point somebody is going to ask the question, 'What side are you on?'" Roberts said. Contact writer Ry Rivard at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-1796. Follow him at www.twitter.com/ryrivard.