Jay Rockefeller rebukes coal-powered climate deniers: “Burying ones head in the sand is not a solution”

Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-WV), now the senior senator from the Appalachian state after Sen. Robert Byrd’s death this year, rebuked his state’s climate deniers at a forum about the future of coal on Wednesday.  Wonk Room’s Brad Johnson has the story.

Jay RockefellerWest Virginia’s politics are dominated by coal interests, including the mountaintop removal giant Massey Energy run by right-wing climate denier Don Blankenship. Many of the state’s top politicians are in denial about the costs of coal pollution, even as mountains are destroyed, children poisoned, and towns washed away. Rockefeller told coal supporters should stop “pretending climate change doesn’t exist“:

People think they are protecting coal by pretending climate change doesn’t exist or that (by saying) carbon capture and storage is not needed. But burying one’s head in the sand is not a solution and can only backfire. Denying the problem of climate change may feel good in the short term, but in the long term, it only locks in an existing infrastructure for other fuels like natural gas and will cost coal miners’ jobs.

Rockefeller “said such thinking will put the state behind the rest of the world in embracing new energy technology, and could lead to coal losing out to natural gas as the major energy supplier of the future,” WVNS TV’s Walt Williams reported. Rockefeller said “it is a natural instinct for people to ignore a problem hoping it would go away, but it won’t in this case.”

Responding to the propaganda campaigns by Massey Energy, the West Virginia Coal Association, FreedomWorks, Americans for Prosperity, American Solutions for Winning the Future, and other coal-powered front groups, Rockefeller said he’s not on the “bandwagon” that “climate change is a myth”:

I’m concerned that powerful voices in West Virginia continue to argue that climate change is a myth. I’m not on the same bandwagon that some of you are. I am really concerned that these voices are so loud, dominant (and) shaping public opinion.

“The question is not should we try to address climate change,” he said. “The question is what tools should we develop to tackle it,” supporting the Obama administration’s efforts to jumpstart American carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) technology.

Unfortunately, Rockefeller is still attempting to delay action on global warming pollution, with his proposal to suspend Environmental Protection Agency rules and his support for Lisa Murkowski’s (R-AK) amendment to deny that greenhouse gases are a pollutant. Ironically, as the Charleston Gazette’s Ken Ward Jr. notes, establishing limits on coal pollution are critical for creating a domestic market for CCS technology, allowing the United States to compete with the current market leaders in Europe and Asia.

Before his death, Byrd demanded that the coal industry get real about the costs of mountaintop removal, telling it to end the “fear mongering, grandstanding and outrage.” Opposing the Murkowski amendment, Byrd said that to “deny the mounting science of climate change is to stick our heads in the sand,” and “the regulation of greenhouse gasses is approaching, whether done by Congress or by regulation, despite naysayers who rail about the non-existence of climate change.”

One hopes that Rockefeller will continue to honor the legacy of Sen. Byrd by standing up for the real interests of West Virginians, instead of the short-term interests of its handful of coal millionaires.

— Brad Johnson

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22 Responses to Jay Rockefeller rebukes coal-powered climate deniers: “Burying ones head in the sand is not a solution”

  1. homunq says:

    For people like Rockefeller, the best strategy is to go all-out for labor. If each coal miner job comes with the permanent health and life insurance it deserves, that’s good for his constituents and, by driving up the price of coal, good for us too. Mountaintop removal, also, was invented to save on labor costs; banning it is pro-worker as well as pro-environment.

    We should be actively seeking deals with labor to buy the votes of coal state senators, and to get them squarely on the side of the EPA and OSHA.

    Of course, in order to get anything, we also need filibuster reform.

  2. Paul Metz says:

    Rockefeller is a real leader by accepting the inconvenient facts and proposing positive action for change. Byrd, however, not always: he killed the Kyoto Protocol in 1998 by suggesting it would be bad for the US economy without proposing any alternative way to protect the climate and jobs.

  3. george ennis says:

    Senator Rockerfeller understands that at some point within the next 15 to 20 years nature will provide a real “wake up” call to Americans.

    Right now nature is sending a wake-up call but for most Americans it is in the way of a small alarm clock. In the future the wake-up call will be like a a fire alarm going off. Delaying any government action now on the climate change front only guarantees that when that alarm clock goes off government intervention will be more draconian and intrusive in our lives then people can barely imagine.

    Ironically it is the deniers who are setting the grounds for the need for draconian political action in the future that will necessitate what Hobbes would call the Great Leviathan. It is those who are calling for political action today against the threat of climate change who are the ones trying to preserve our political system and culture.

  4. Leland Palmer says:

    One problem in trying to understand the output of Jay Rockefeller is the very long history of deception of people in his family.

    The old Standard Oil of John D. Rockefeller was a ruthless cut-throat company, which climbed to monopoly refining status in the U.S. using a wide variety of deceptive and sometimes illegal tactics. Some of those tactics reportedly included blowing up other refiner’s pipelines. Certainly, their use of industrial clout and monopoly power to get the railroads to charge other refiners extra fees for transportation was a masterpiece in deception.

    Standard Oil, by all accounts, was run like a precursor of the CIA, and used industrial espionage on a very large scale.

    This culminated in John D. Rockefeller becoming the all time world’s richest man, as measured by his wealth compared to the GDP of his parent society. And the U.S. of the 1920’s was a very rich society.

    Standard oil was broken up by the government in the early 1910s, although the combined stock never lost value, and some have questioned whether the loss of formal ownership status of the splinter corporations ever really resulted in loss of Rockefeller family control of this industrial behemoth.

    Two fragments of Standard Oil are now recombined to form ExxonMobil, still apparently under Rockefeller control if you pay attention to who wins the proxy fights, one of which resulted in the firing of Lee Raymond as CEO in 2006, I think. Even there, the 450 million dollar size of Lee Raymond’s golden parachute make some people question whether he really lost the fight, or whether he was just retired because of his blatant support for global warming denial funding.

    The Rockefellers pretty much invented corporate PR, and have been heavy users of this form of institutional lying ever since.

    It’s a long, long history of family involvement with and some say domination of the CIA by the family, and a long history of systematic deception used as a business tool that we have to understand, when evaluating Jay Rockefeller’s statements. Certainly, Nelson Rockefeller served on secret committees that oversaw CIA actions during the Cold War. Certainly, Nelson Rockefeller received “family jewels” briefings by the CIA. Certainly, the CIA has acted almost a private security force for ExxonMobil and other American oil corporations, apparently overthrowing foreign governments and installing numerous puppet dictators, in situations where populist leaders were advocating nationalizing of oil fields.

    So, what does Jay Rockefeller want? He wants to save coal mining, using CCS. But coal mining using CCS could plausibly use up the CCS capacity of the earth, when what we really should be using that CCS capacity for is to transfer carbon from biomass back underground.

    So, yes, we should develop CCS. But we should progressively transform the coal industry into a biomass industry, and start putting really massive amounts of carbon from biomass back underground. If Jay Rockefeller wants to help the coal industry, he should investigate the use of biomass co-firing, and the sustainable use of charcoal as a coal supplement and replacement, I think.

    When evaluating Jay Rockefeller’s actions and statements, we should probably keep in mind that he has a really huge family conflict of interest, too. The Rockefellers have traditionally controlled ExxonMobil, and ExxonMobil could profit a huge amount from drilling for oil in the Arctic Ocean, after the Arctic sea ice melts in the summer. This could even be the root cause of our inaction in the Senate, and I think it is, myself.

    So, it’s a long history of deception. Lips are moving, lies may be occurring, we just don’t know. Carbon neutral coal and CCS is better than hugely carbon positive coal, and the technology of CCS if applied to biomass fuel results in carbon negative BECCS. BECCS could potentially transfer enough carbon back underground to get us at least back to 350 ppm CO2, I think.

    Depending on industry cooperation during this crisis makes action too slow, IMO. The government should just sue the coal fired utilities and oil corporations for climate damages, and use the huge settlements to bankrupt these corporations, and then seize them. The Rockefeller family should be assessed climate damages, and stripped of their wealth, IMO. ExxonMobil’s contribution to atmospheric CO2 increases has been calculated at five percent of all the CO2 released by the industrial revolution, so, yes the family liability is huge.

    The coal fired power plants could then be transformed into BECCS by fiat, without relying on industry cooperation.

    The coal mining industry is doomed, IMO. If Jay Rockefeller wants to help his state, he should work on sustainably substituting biomass and charcoal for coal, and giving miners new jobs in a sustainable biomass and charcoal industry. New biomass plantations, using biochar as a soil supplement, located upstream of coal fired power plants on rivers that provide cooling water to those power plants, are one possible source of biomass and charcoal.

  5. PeterW says:

    Shouldn’t W.V. be switching to coalbed methane extraction instead of mining coal? I know it isn’t a perfect solution but wouldn’t this cut CO2 emissions substantially by obtaining the energy from methane and not directly from burning coal?

  6. David Smith says:

    Why are we talking about CCS as if the technology already exists or will absolutely exist in the near future? Does anybody besides entrenched energy interests really think CCS could successfully exist on a scale that would make a difference? (This seems like a replay of Yucca Flats to me – decades of R&D and construction and ending with nothing.)

    I propose that CCS is being pursued either as a political vehicle or as a technology that can easily be manipulated at great profit by those entities who are causing the problems in the first place. Or maybe just a delaying tactic.

  7. Peter Bellin says:

    My concern is that the Senator still supports coal consumption, promoting CCS. Based on climate progress posts, and other readings, I do not have confidence on CCS as an effective strategy to mitigate the CO2 impact of coal as a power source.

    We do, as a society, have to recognize the impact of moving away from coal as a power source. The economic impacts on many communities dependent on coal production are quite significant. When we stop using coal to produce electricity, we must do so in a way that will minimize the economic impact on these communities, and offer a way to transform those same economies to a new ‘green’ future.

    At the same time as I criticize Senator Rockefeller for believing that CCS is a viable solution, I recognize that his constitutents rely on coal production for their livelihood, indeed their social structure.

  8. Leif says:

    Right on Leland Palmer @ 4:
    I am convinced that the big fossil fuel industry is just investing all the money and time in the denier confusion strategy to buy themselves time to manipulate the capitalistic environment to their advantage to maximize their control of the future green economy. The fact that they are making billions of dollars a day as well is just icing on the cake. In the end the cash flush corporations will receive no bid contracts to save humanity with sympathetic politicians in the drivers seat. All getting filthy rich while humanity continues to kiss their feet.

    Or NOT.

    Food is a Human right.
    Water is a Human right.
    Air is a Human right.
    Sustainability is a Human right…. Vote!

  9. mike roddy says:

    Excellent post, Leland, and I agree with you and Leif: Watch what Rockefeller does, not what he says.

    As for CCS, doesn’t biochar capture run into the same limitation as coal emissions capture? The storage volume required is enormous in either case. Perhaps you mean that biochar can be integrated into the soil, which is less of a challenge than sealed underground containment for coal or gas plant emissions. Please clarify for us.

  10. homunq says:

    My point is that, even under, say, the Sierra Club’s optimistic projections of moving away from coal, there will still be enough coal being used in the USA to provide good jobs for US coal miners for the next 10 years. The profit from that extraction can go to executives, shareholders, miners, taxpayers (tax & dividend), the government (tax), or miners; in approximately increasing order of justice. Stricter health and safety regulation, including mandatory widows’ pensions, is just another way of taxing the carbon.

  11. paulm says:

    Burying ones head in the soot!

  12. Leland Palmer says:

    Hi Mike (post #10)

    As for CCS, doesn’t biochar capture run into the same limitation as coal emissions capture? The storage volume required is enormous in either case. Perhaps you mean that biochar can be integrated into the soil, which is less of a challenge than sealed underground containment for coal or gas plant emissions. Please clarify for us.

    What I meant was that we should develop CCS, and store the CO2 underground, just as the proponents of CCS for use with coal propose, but apply the technology to biomass and charcoal combustion instead. I would like to see charcoal used both as biochar (a soil amendment) and as a replacement fuel in coal fired power plants. The CO2 from the converted coal fired power plants could also be deep injected, resulting in a “carbon negative” effect. This carbon negative effect uses plant growth to capture carbon out of the air, then takes this carbon, burns it in converted coal fired power plants, and then deep injects it into the ground using CCS. This carbon negative effect actually takes carbon out of the atmosphere, and transfers it back underground.

    The main reservoirs for injected super-critical CO2 would be deep saline aquifers and fractured deposits of basalt, I think. Deep saline aquifers supposedly have several trillion tons of ultimate capacity, while fractured basalt deposits have a potential to react with the CO2 to form carbonates, in which case their mineral carbonation capacity could be almost infinite.

    Small and medium scale deep injection of CO2 is a mature technology, as are super-critical CO2 pipelines. The U.S. actually has a network of such pipelines, in the Midwest and Texas, mostly, used for transporting CO2 from natural reservoirs underground to oil fields for deep injection, for secondary oil recovery.

    So, sorry for the confusion. I’d like to see charcoal used as biochar, but also as a replacement fuel for coal.

    While biomass combustion in coal fired power plants might require some work, because the corrosion problems are somewhat different (I think biomass has more chlorine in it than coal does, for example) charcoal pellets produced from biomass should work just fine in existing coal fired power plants without any modification at all, so far as I know.

    What I envision is biomass plantations planted upstream from converted coal fired power plants on the rivers that now supply those coal fired power plants with cooling water. A huge part of the Mississippi river system, for example, consists of navigable waterways filled with barge transport, with numerous coal fired power plants located on the rivers themselves. Biomass or charcoal produced upstream could economically be transported hundreds of miles from the source, on the Ohio/Missouri/Mississippi river system of navigable waterways.

    What I propose as well is that those biomass plantations could use part of their biomass output as biochar, mixed in with the soil of these plantations to increase soil fertility, while sequestering carbon at the same time.

    I don’t think we should waste CCS on coal. Coal is very stable storage of carbon, which does not generally have any environmental hazards associated with it so long as it stays in the ground. We should develop CCS, apply it to biomass or charcoal, and start putting several billion tons of carbon per year back underground, I think.

    The Wikipedia article on BECCS (BioEnergy with Carbon Capture and Storage) is quite good, and has some really good references, if you are interested. :)

  13. ToddInNorway says:

    The point that natural gas can outcompete coal as fuel for power plants is the key point here IMO. Natural gas beats coal on every environmental parameter, including risk to groundwater resources in shale gas recovery. This is a well-known manageable risk that simply requires regulators who are empowered to do their jobs and industry that is motivated to comply. The number one risk to groundwater resources is mountaintop removal and the number two risk is ash pond releases and failures. So W. Virginia, look to Pennsylvania, where shale gas development is rapidly progressing. They will soon have enough medium-term natural gas supply to completely shut down the coal industry in the Apallachian region. And the natural gas power plants are already in place. They have been mostly idle since they were built in the 1990´s during the “dash for gas” policy was pushed, in fact at that time, as a means to reduce the environmental footprint of coal. And by the way, natural gas prices are at their lowest the last 25 years, so electricity customers are likely to win too.

  14. Mac says:

    I wouldn’t count on much from Jay R. Below is a letter I received from him on Friday. (I’m not sure what part of WV he’s referring to with regard to high wages and low cost electricity! The coal mining towns are the POOREST areas in the state and we’ve had 3 elec rate hikes in under 3 years here.) I believe most in WV would agree Jay is more interested in protecting coal interests than addressing climate change. No solution should ’embrace coal’ as an energy source!

    Thank you for contacting me with your thoughts on climate change and so-called “cap-and-trade” legislation. I understand the strong convictions you have on this subject and recognize how vital this issue is, not only to you, but also to our state. I always appreciate hearing from fellow West Virginians on such important matters.

    Climate change is a serious issue that I believe our nation and the world must begin to address by reducing our greenhouse gas emissions. However, any attempt to confront climate change must also protect our economy. In West Virginia, a critical part of that economy is coal. For over 100 years, coal has provided West Virginians with good paying jobs and low electricity prices. Coal currently provides almost half of our nation’s electricity and is an essential part of America’s energy future.

    I believe that Congress can address these issues as part of energy and climate legislation that both reduces our greenhouse gas emissions and simultaneously secures the future of coal. To that end, I have laid out seven core principles that must be included in energy and climate legislation:

    o First and foremost, the United States must recognize and embrace coal as an essential part of our nation’s energy plan. West Virginians have long recognized how important coal is to our economy, but today millions of Americans rely on West Virginia coal without even realizing it.

    o Second, we must safeguard American energy and manufacturing jobs.

    o Third, we must defend the U.S. economy against unfair competition from nations like China and India and make sure our trade-exposed manufacturers are never put at a disadvantage.

    o Fourth, we must protect working families from rising energy costs at home.

    o Fifth, we must invest aggressively in new and existing technologies – including, but not limited to, carbon capture and storage which I have proposed in bipartisan legislation (S.3591)–to make coal cleaner and establish U.S. energy dominance.

    o Sixth, we must insist that efforts to address greenhouse gas emissions give our economy and our industries the time that’s needed to develop and implement these new technologies.

    o Seventh, legislation should be the final word providing regulatory certainty by prohibiting the EPA from imposing additional burdensome requirements on coal-fired power plants.

    There are currently several different legislative proposals to address climate change that include “cap and trade”. However, I do not believe that any of these proposals have embodied the seven principles that I have outlined above, and therefore I do not support them.

    I also firmly believe major energy policy should be the result of congressional action and not Environmental Protection Agency regulation. The EPA has limited authority to address economic needs or to encourage new technologies and no obligation to protect the jobs of hard-working people of West Virginia and the nation. That is why I have introduced legislation, the Stationary Source Regulations Delay Act (S. 3072), to suspend any potential EPA regulation of greenhouse gases for two years – giving Congress the time that is needed to address this complex issue in a way that will work for West Virginia and the nation.

    Thank you again for taking the time to contact me on such an important issue. As always, I wish you the best.

  15. Leland Palmer says:

    Hi Mac-

    Yes, he wants to “protect the economy”- which translates into business as usual, mostly.

    Following his proposed timetable for change would almost certainly lead to loss of the Arctic sea ice, opening the Arctic up for oil exploitation.

    Arctic oil exploitation could be hugely profitable for ExxonMobil. The output of Scott Borgerson, a David Rockefeller visiting fellow at the traditionally Rockefeller dominated Council on Foreign Relations, strongly suggests that at least some factions of the Rockefeller family looks upon climate change as a business opportunity. Go to the CFR website, or search on “CFR Scott Borgerson” on Google to confirm this.

    Is this better than outright denial, this massive meddling with climate systems we know are capable of massive feedbacks, which have apparently destabilized the climate enough to cause mass extinctions in the past?

    Greed for Arctic oil could kill us all, and all future generations as well, as could greed for cheap coal fired electricity.

  16. mike roddy says:

    Thanks for both of your contributions today, Leland. I’m peripherally involved in a $330 million poplar plantation (on degraded grazing land) biochar power plant, but don’t know the technical details because they are proprietary. If you’re interested, you can email me at

    Drop by more often- I always learn from your posts, both here and at Realclimate.

  17. Mark says:

    very interesting,well informed post and comments;

    I always learn something at this site.

    thanks very much.

  18. Climate Activist says:

    Leland Palmer, your comments are amazing! I’d heard, but long forgotten, some of the tales you told about the Rockefeller family, plus learned much more. So, many thanks!

    Here’s another twist of the screw that I find interesting—spurred by your comments: The Rockefeller family is also providing funding to the climate movement. On it’s face, this seems fine I suppose—maybe a way to help absolve past sins? But, take a closer look. At least one of the groups they fund, 1Sky, almost seems to have been set up to attract some of the best talent in the movement, then render it less threatening. Could this be?

    One example: Bill McKibben got the climate movement moving, with StepItUp, in 2007. 1Sky “took over,” with a plan to include ALL climate activists under 1Sky, then took a long time doing nothing, then gave up on coordinating all groups, then became a “samo.”

    Lack of unified action among the thousands of climate-oriented environmental groups is quite probably the single greatest weakness of the climate movement today.

    Is it possible that fossil fuel interests foster this lack of unified action? Stranger things have happened, eh?

  19. Prokaryotes says:

    I’m kind of impressed with these statements. Just CCS is not working as proposed. Though it misses so far the “BE” Bio-Energy. I did not read all the comments, especially not Leland’s – cause i’m busy right now, just want to say that BECCS is the way to go.

    Though BECCS can and must be adopted – why not from current industries?

  20. Mark says:

    “Lack of unified action among the thousands of climate-oriented environmental groups is quite probably the single greatest weakness of the climate movement today.

    Is it possible that fossil fuel interests foster this lack of unified action? Stranger things have happened, eh?”

    why not?

    Given the things we do know about how big industry operates in general, the dedication to a single goal, financial gain, this is quite plausible, make that… probable.

  21. Suppose someone set out to invent a more compact, less expensive IGCC technology that could produce power competitive with new coal or natural gas combined cycle plants, and retrofit existing coal plants increasing their capacity, and capture carbon. How would this invention change this dialog?