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Sen. Byrd stunner: “Coal Must Embrace The Future: The truth is that some form of climate legislation will likely become public policy because most American voters want a healthier environment.”

By Joe Romm

"Sen. Byrd stunner: “Coal Must Embrace The Future: The truth is that some form of climate legislation will likely become public policy because most American voters want a healthier environment.”"

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“To deny the mounting science of climate change is to stick our heads in the sand”

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Change has been a constant throughout the history of our coal industry. West Virginians can choose to anticipate change and adapt to it, or resist and be overrun by it. One thing is clear. The time has arrived for the people of the Mountain State to think long and hard about which course they want to choose.

Anyone who thought that the senior Senator from West Virginia was a guaranteed “no” vote on the bipartisan climate and clean energy bill needs to rethink that position.  For instance, Nate Silver’s “Probability of Yes” vote for Byrd is 19.4%.

Byrd’s must-read op-ed, “Coal Must Embrace The Future,” published today in WV’s MetroNews (and reprinted below) makes clear that he is at the negotiating table.  And for those who find it hard to believe that change could be embraced by the 92-year-old long-time coal supporter who has served in Congress longer than anyone else ever has –  over 50 years in the Senate alone — you can listen to Byrd speaking most of the piece here.

Aaron Weiner of the Washington Independent writes of Byrd’s piece, which “even attacks the environmentally detrimental practice of mountaintop mining”:

Political insiders have portrayed Byrd as a difficult get for Democrats trying to pass cap-and-trade legislation. But as Byrd nears the end of his career and reflects on his legacy, I’ve speculated that he’s more likely to come around to climate legislation “” which will be the most important environmental bill in our country’s history, if Congress manages to pass it “” than a lot of pundits might think. His piece today suggests a step in that direction.

Byrd’s vote isn’t a certainty, but I now think it likely he’ll vote to end a conservative filibuster.   This op-ed is more evidence that the Senate is probably going to pass a climate bill next year (see Sen. Baucus (D-MT): “There’s no doubt that this Congress is going to pass climate change legislation” and Washington Times: “Obama digs in on global warming”).

Here’s the full must-read op-ed:

For more than 100 years, coal has been the backbone of the Appalachian economy. Even today, the economies of more than 20 states depend to some degree on the mining of coal. About half of all the electricity generated in America and about one quarter of all the energy consumed globally is generated by coal.

Change is no stranger to the coal industry.  Think of the huge changes which came with the onset of the Machine Age in the late 1800′s.  Mechanization has increased coal production and revenues, but also has eliminated jobs, hurting the economies of coal communities. In 1979, there were 62,500 coal miners in the Mountain State. Today there are about 22,000. In recent years, West Virginia has seen record high coal production and record low coal employment.

And 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 and erratic spot market prices all add up to fewer jobs in the coal fields.

These are real problems. They affect real people. And West Virginia’s elected officials are rightly concerned about jobs and the economic impact on local communities.  I share those concerns.  But the time has come to have an open and honest dialogue about coal’s future in West Virginia.

Let’s speak 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 back pockets because that 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. This, in turn, may create the perception of ineffectiveness within the industry, which can drive potential investors away.

Let’s speak a little more truth here. No deliberate effort to do away with the coal industry could ever succeed in Washington because there is no available alternative energy supply that could immediately supplant the use of coal for base load power generation in America. That is a stubborn fact that vexes some in the environmental community, but it is reality.

It is also a reality that the practice of mountaintop removal mining has a diminishing constituency in Washington. It is not a widespread method of mining, with its use confined to only three states.  Most members of Congress, like most Americans, oppose the practice, and 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 (EPA) over mountaintop removal mining, but we risk the very probable consequence of shouting ourselves out of any productive dialogue with EPA and our adversaries in the Congress.

Some 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 foolish; it is morally indefensible.  It is a non-starter, and puts the entire state of West Virginia and the coal industry in a terrible light.

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 to stay at the table.

The 20 coal-producing states together hold some powerful political cards. We can have a part in shaping energy policy, but we must be honest brokers if we have any prayer of influencing coal policy on looming issues important to the future of coal like hazardous air pollutants, climate change, and federal dollars for investments in clean coal technology.

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.

I have spent the past six months working with a group of coal state Democrats in the Senate, led by West Virginia native Senator Tom Carper (D-Del.), drafting provisions to assist the coal industry in more easily transitioning to a lower-carbon economy. These include increasing funding for clean coal projects and easing emission standards and timelines, setting aside billions of dollars for coal plants that install new technology and continue using coal. These are among the achievable ways coal can continue its major role in our national energy portfolio. It is the best way to step up to the challenge and help lead change.

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.

The future of coal and indeed of our total energy picture lies in change and innovation. In fact, the future of American industrial power and our economic ability to compete globally depends on our ability to advance energy 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 from rigid mindsets, depleting coal reserves, and the declining demand for coal as more power plants begin shifting 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, including:  America’s first integrated carbon capture and sequestration project on a conventional coal-fired power plant in Mason County; the largest wind power facility in the eastern United States; a bio-fuel refinery in Nitro; three large wood pellet plants in Fayette, Randolph, and Gilmer Counties; and major dams capable of generating substantial electricity.

Change has been a constant throughout the history of our coal industry. West Virginians can choose to anticipate change and adapt to it, or resist and be overrun by it.  One thing is clear.  The time has arrived for the people of the Mountain State to think long and hard about which course they want to choose.

Remarkable.  I predict Byrd will vote for cloture on the bipartisan climate and clean energy bill, that is, vote to end the inevitable, immoral filibuster by the the inevitable, immoral filibuster anti-science conservatives led by James “the last flat-earther” Inhofe (R-OIL).

Related Posts:

‹ Byrd Calls Tactics Of ‘Fear Mongering’ Coal Industry ‘Morally Indefensible’

The Republican Definition Of ‘Fascism’: Defending Climate Science From Exxon-Mobil Corruption ›

17 Responses to Sen. Byrd stunner: “Coal Must Embrace The Future: The truth is that some form of climate legislation will likely become public policy because most American voters want a healthier environment.”

  1. Rabid Doomsayer says:

    Last paragraph, cloture?-

  2. Rabid Doomsayer says:

    I thought it was a typo, learnt something new.

  3. Bill R says:

    I find this editorial of Byrds both welcome, but ultimately a concern.
    You know as well as many, Joe how far in reality that Clean Coal is from happening. Does not getting Byrd and others to vote mean constructing a Cap and Trade regime to funnel massive amounts of money to propping up something that ultimately will not work? If the climate issue is a dire one and we have few chances to get it right, does it pay to cut a deal with the “coal devil” if 40-50% of the alternative energy money goes toward sequestration and new coal plants? The reality to me seems to be that this is going to be alot of wasted time/effort down a false path initially as we find out 1) that coal is still toxic in its extraction and 2) still a finite fossil fuel subject to the same “peaking” 20-30 years from now as oil.

    Perhaps your excitement over this is the political realist in you that we need some coal people at the table to get legislation passed.

  4. Bill R says:

    Actually… Byrd’s last three paragraphs are more open and progressive to a world outside coal than I give him credit for. At the same time, its obvious he is excited about “billions” for “clean coal”.

  5. It is possible to just use coalgas creating hydrogen and CO2, and ccs and run the CO2 into an oilfield.

    A demo was just funded by DOE in CA http://cleantechnica.com/2009/12/01/kyoto-accord-to-hydrogen-power-california/

  6. While falling far short of fully endorsing the movement to clean energy, this shift is important in that it moves away from the stonewall position of rejecting any notion of addressing climate change, and that is a huge step from the perspective of the political climate that to date has done little in the way of making progress on any front.

  7. Jeff R. says:

    This is huge! This editorial represents a major turning point. More cards will fall.

  8. Wes Rolley says:

    What it says to me is that Byrd will not run for another term and no longer needs Don Blankenship’s blessing. So, who might take his place? Rahall? Manchin? Still on Blankenship’s roster.

  9. Andy Velwest says:

    Senator Byrd is smart, he knows that “staying at the table” will win more concessions that staying away, and says as much.

    He talks about “the truth”, but he leaves out a lot. For example, he says that in 1979 there were 62,500 coal miners in West Virginia, and only 22,00 0 remain. What has happened to the 40,000 others? Do they have jobs? Who retrained them? It seems clear to me that the Coal Industry is the force at play here, not the Coal Workers. If every Coal Worker lost their job today, would that make a dent in our current 16 million unemployed? Not much of a dent. These workers need new jobs outside of the coal industry. The ACES bill gives workers 3 years pay to retrain. I can’t think of many jobs that require more than 3 years of training to learn.

    He talks a good game, and it’s great that he, and others, want to talk. We have better facts on our side. With a big effort, we could replace all of our coal consumption in 10 years, replacing it with energy efficiency, geothermal, biomass, solar, and wind farms. That would be risky, but waiting would be more risky. I know we won’t have the courage to do this, but 20 years is reasonable.

    The main hurdle is removing this falsehood: that the “future of coal” is important. Coal is a thing, it does not need a future. People need a future, and they need a livable environment to have one.

  10. DeeDee says:

    HAHAHAHA!!! Your scam has been revealed. Hope you choke on your own bile.

    [JR: Well argued!]

  11. SCPolicyGuy says:

    This is a significant public statement and probably the result of extensive negotiations betwee the coal producing states and their many detractors. Terse and to the point… The coal advocacy coalition group has gotten a lot of R&D money from the current administration. Let’s hope they put it to good use. There may be some crafty bits left out of this statement such as our newly found ability to generate large quantities of natural gas from major shale seams (the Marcellus comes to mind) which happens to benefit West Virginia, among others along the Appalachians. Not sure what the Powder river coal guys and the state of Wyoming think about all this.

  12. Andy says:

    I’d be hesitant to put much stock in Byrd’s change of heart. Nothing has changed on his website. Still strong on ‘clean coal’ which we know doesn’t exist. As a WV resident, we’ve all seen both Byrd and Rockefeller sell out to coal time and again. I believe the only reason Mountain Top Removal is now under scrutiny is because the damage can no longer be denied nor the health issues of the local mining towns. Thanks to those like Hansen who have called attention to this travesty, WV coal mining is finally being brought to public and congressional attention. How sad that it took ‘Green’ being ‘in’ for people to take a stand on this issue.

  13. Leif says:

    Andy, #12: “How sad that it took ‘Green’ being ‘in’ for people to take a stand on this issue.” Also points out the POWER of mass demonstrations. What has happened people? In my youth we could get 10s of thousands out to do nothing more than “Levitate the Pentagon” and spread flowers. In hind sight, it would appear that we were successful in at least budging the Pentagon a bit as it now recognizes that “green” and “sustainability” are “National Security Issues.”

  14. Lewis says:

    Wow. Well at least in 50 years in the Senate the man has learned how to read a tactical situation.

  15. mike roddy says:

    I’m pretty cynical, but it looks to me like Senator Byrd has experienced a spiritual awakening. We need more of them.

  16. Chris Winter says:

    This was a well-calibrated speech, not one to mark Senator Byrd as having turned suddenly into a rabid coal-industry reformer. But that’s OK; it’s still a courageous stance. The true test, of course, will be his vote.

    One thing jumped out at me: “a declining national demand for energy”? Unless he means declining with respect to population growth, that’s got to be wrong.

  17. Barry says:

    Interesting that it didn’t take actual legislation to start the big shift away from coal. All it took was reasonable certainty that restrictions were coming in some form.

    The supreme court ruling, the epa co2 finding, the regional cap & trade talks and now the congressional efforts are all adding momentum even though none have placed a single penny on coal yet.

    This highlights the fact that a high carbon price isn’t necessarily needed right away. What is needed is reasonable expectation that carbon will be increasingly expensive and restricted within the time frame that infrastructure decision makers look at.

    Sierra Club lists over 100 proposed coal plants that have been stopped recently at http://www.sierraclub.org/environmentallaw/coal/plantlist.asp. This is a great place to see what is being proposed in your state and to help them shut new ones down before they are built.

    Existing coal plants are also being shut down in increasing numbers. Just today Exelon said they are closing 2 coal plants in PA. Yesterday Progress Energy said it would close 11 coal-burning power plants in North Carolina. And Duke Energy Corp. has said recently it will shut down 18 coal plants by 2020.

    More and more companies are doing their own bottom-line math and seeing that economics just don’t make sense for coal much longer.

    Time to double our efforts and use this momentum to transition off dirty coal even faster than we imagined was possible a few years ago.