[Updated at noon to reflect vote.]
West Virginia coal operators have to “face reality” and stop shrugging off science about climate change and pollution-related health problems, Sen. Jay Rockefeller said in a sweeping speech on the Senate floor Wednesday.
Rockefeller, D-W.Va., accused the coal industry of scare tactics and said after years of industry opposite 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. The maneuver failed. Rockefeller’s colleague, U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., supported the attempt to block the rule, which he said is part of “EPA’s jobs-killing agenda.” Rockefeller, as he made clear in his remarks, opposed the effort to block the rule.
The new EPA rule is targeted at reducing emissions, particularly mercury, from 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.
Rockefeller’s remarks were similar to the stern message the late Sen. Robert Byrd delivered in 2009, at the end of his long, pro-coal career. Byrd said then that 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.
Rockefeller used blunt broadsides and subtle jabs to criticize the current era of coal operators. He compared today’s coal executives unfavorably to a former Consolidated Coal Company 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.” Instead, he 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.”