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West Virginia Senator Robert Byrd: “Coal Must Embrace The Future”

Writing in last Thursday’s West Virginia Metro News that “the time has come to have an open and honest dialogue about coal’s future in West Virginia”, US Senator Robert Byrd (D-West Virginia) issued a stinging rebuke of the coal industry’s recent political tactics, challenging the industry to transition away from mountaintop mining, currently practiced in three US states, and towards low-carbon coal production processes.

Pointing out that half of the country’s electrical energy generation and about one-quarter of the world’s primary energy is fueled by coal, Byrd asserted that “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.” However, he added, “scapegoating and stoking fear among workers over the permitting process is counter-productive.

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,”, wrote Byrd. “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 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.”
—US Senator Robert Byrd

West Virginia Chamber of Commerce President Steve Roberts immediately expressed disappointment with Byrd’s essay. Last month, members of the West Virginia Chamber of Commerce pressured Senator Byrd as well as US Senator Jay Rockefeller to refuse to vote on health care legislation until the Obama Administration addressed concerns about coal policy.

Byrd also predicted that “some form of climate legislation will likely become public policy because most American voters want a healthier environment”, and observed that “major coal-fired power plants and coal operators operating in West Virginia...are making significant investments to prepare” for such policy.

Low-carbon and renewable energy projects under development in West Virginia include an integrated carbon capture and sequestration project on a conventional coal-fired power plant in Mason County, supported by a recent Department of Energy (DOE) grant, (earlier post); a US$300 million, 1.5MW wind farm composed of 119 turbines in Greenbrier County; a biofuel refinery in Nitro; and three wood pellet plants in Fayette, Randolph, and Gilmer Counties.

West Virginia is home to about 22,000 coal miners, down from 62,500 in 1979. The state has seen record low coal unemployment, coupled with record high coal production, in part because of “brute force” mining processes such as mountaintop removal.

—Jack Rosebro



Good luck Senator. You will need it.


Hillbillies + politics of envy + economics of coal = continued mess for coal industry in West Virginia

Nick Lyons

Cudos to Senator Byrd.

West Virginia is home to about 22,000 coal miners, down from 62,500 in 1979.

The number of jobs we can save by continuing the coal industry business as usual is inconsequential in the larger scheme of things. We will create many more jobs by investing in green energy and energy conservation. Time to embrace the future and stop the demagoguery. The big coal wastrels who can't adjust will be losers, but so be it.

Time to rethink, renew and retrain the workforce as necessary.


Since blowing the tops off mountain ranges has become a popular way to extract coal, the process has become more damaging. The rock is just dumped into river valleys, because the previous administration said that was legal to do so. I would just leave it in the ground as a reserve for the future. Renewable methane from biomass gasification with combined cycle power plants, solar, thermal, wind and other sources can provide us with the power we need without coal nor nuclear, when we add efficiency to the equation.


If it's all private property (mountain tops and river valleys), and there are no threatened/endangered species or historical resources, and there are no water quality issues or other public interest issues, what is the big deal? The problem is with water quality issues during / after mining with some operations - but they can be spanked for these & forced to clean up.

I think a lot of the problem is there are a lot of poor hillbillies that are seeing people in the coal industry making good money & private property (that they do not want to buy & put into preservation) being utilized in a way they don't like. Are people, fish and wildlife dying off from toxins being discharged illegally into rivers and streams? Does every single mountain top operation result in contaminated streams and rivers? To me, you continue to refine & improve the BMP's you require in the permitting process - and spank them if they violate water quality rules...but keep issuing the permits --- people that don't like it should buy the mountain top property outright & put into preservation (conservation easements, etc) or STFU.


ejj - How very insensitive is your argument. Could you imagine a society where the majority would be on the same wavelength?

NL & SJC - Danemark is a good example of what green energy industries can do. They created more employment than Airbus.

Massive manufacturing and installation of solar panels, wind turbine-generators, load regulating batteries and up-to-date electricity distribution intelligent networks could create more jobs in USA than all coal mines and current Big-3 ( or Leaner-3) put together.

Mountain tops should be preserved to install future large (invisible) wind turbines. Winds 300 to 400 feet above mountain tops are ideal for high performance turbines.


ejj - Yes, people and animals are dying, but slowly, and they are poor people, so no one pays attention. If no one is around to notice anyway, put windmills on those hills and run a line to the east coast. It is not a long distance and will be easy to run power lines because NIMBY is not an issue in most of West Virginia (again, poor people, you know).

Good for Sen. Byrd for stepping up to the plate.


Uhhhh where's the insensitivity? I support energy independence, property rights, and clean air & water.
Want clean coal? Incentivize the coal & power industry with tax breaks: any 100% clean burning power plant will be able to operate 100% tax free.

Do you drive a car HarveyD? You're being insensitive to the bugs and occasional mammals you kill while driving it.


I suspect most of the poor people are, and will be ex coal miners.

Putting Chinese windmills on those hills puts the power where it is not needed will not go too well with West Virginia (not all poor people, and certainly not all gullible, you know).


If you own a mountain top and the adjacent valleys, would you like the government telling you that you can't sell your property to someone that wants to do a legal activity on it and pay you more money than anyone else? If you wanted to mine the area for coal yourself, would you like the government telling you that you are not allowed to do the legal activity in accordance with the applicable public interest laws? And while the government took away your right to use your land, would you like it if they didn't compensate you for taking away that right? It's called a "takings", which is unconstitutional. So, mountain top mining is also a major property rights & interstate commerce issue. If mountain tops and the adjacent valleys are so special, all the environmental groups (Nature Conservancy, Conservation Fund, World Wildlife Fundetc.) should stop complaining and get together & BUY THEM....OR the government should BAN mountaintop mining outright.


"If it's all private property (mountain tops and river valleys), and there are no threatened/endangered species or historical resources, and there are no water quality issues or other public interest issues, what is the big deal?"

ejj: That's a lot of ifs. Would you condone removing the tops of the Alps, the Rockies, etc, if only there were coal there?

"Putting Chinese windmills on those hills puts the power where it is not needed will not go too well with West Virginia"

ToppaTom: First, have you have ever heard of electrical transmission lines? Second, how is putting a windmill on top of a mountain more undesirable than removing the mountain top altogether? Third, why do the windmills have to be Chinese? Last I checked, there were companies in the US that manufacture windmills and I bet they would just love to hire unemployed ex-coal miners to ramp up production and put windmills on mountaintops.

I would love to know where Robert Byrd's balls have been all the while that coal companies have been removing mountaintops, polluting streams and killing off animals in West Virginia. It's not like all of this is new. It has been going on for some time and he has been senator all along. Just now he decides all of a sudden that all of that is unacceptable? He's a little late. Many mountaintops have already been removed and they don't grow back.


Peter: If mountain tops and the adjacent valleys are so special, all the environmental groups (Nature Conservancy, Conservation Fund, World Wildlife Fundetc.) should stop complaining and get together & BUY THEM, or the government should BAN mountaintop mining outright...or another option: the government should eminent domain all the mountain tops (legalized seizure of property with compensation to the property owners) and turn the land into a national forest or national park.

So, if the Alps & Rockies were private land (most of the Rockies are actually Bureau of Land Management or Forest Service land), environmental groups weren't going to buy the land, and the government was not going to ban mining or eminent domain the land & turn it into forest service property....I would say MINE BABY MINE!


You know, the W. Virginians used to pull coal OUT of the mountains, instead of PULLING OUT THE MOUNTAINS.  They still had mountains and streams left when they were done.  The labor savings from the more-destructive methods are why almost 2/3 of the employment in the coal industry there has evaporated.

Kudos to Byrd for saying this.  I thought he was a slimeball who only wanted his name on everything (drive I-77 sometime and look), but it appears he actually cares about the things which bear his legacy.


ejj, there are lots of Land Trusts and Conservancies that do just what you mention. Usually they buy a property to prevent its development and then deed it over to the state or other public conservator. This is effective because they can move much faster than government (trusts are good for somethings.)

Byrd is absolutely right and should have done this long before. Blowing up mountain tops is defacing the land. If the miners want to reface the mountain after they're done with it - have a go. Likewise with coal bed methane wells. After closing they should replant and remove access roads.

Leaving waste rock and tailing ponds and contaminated stream beds around a mountain is little different than throwing the old sofa on the front lawn side the broke washing machine and rusted out Subaru. It lowers the value of your property.


Reel$$: Using that logic, any kind of development - on land that isn't bought/seized by the government or bought by environmental groups - is defacing it. That's just ridiculous. The government should BAN mining (BAN Wal-Mart & strip malls too then for that matter), or buy/seize mountain tops & make them forest service land, or enviros should buy the land...otherwise stop the nonsense. As for contamination & waste rock and the lack of remediation - if these things happened on every single mountain top mine project, the practice would have been banned long ago. So that is a flawed argument also.


ejj - Don't get too distracted with your right wing, "eliminate tax and government" rhetoric. It may just be that Sen. Byrd is warning the Coal industry that the end is near for their businesses as they currently exist. My bet is that solar and wind will be cheaper than coal very soon. West Virginia needs to find a better economic base, period.


I'm actually more libertarian than right wing....I also think the notion of Pork-Barrel Byrd warning the end of mountain top mining is nigh is very laughable.


If you read the article, he does not want to hold up health care in exchange for what the coal industry wants. Mountain top mining is a small fraction of operations, but does great damage. You start with mountains and end up with plateaus and clogged rivers with erosion problems.

Just leave the coal in the ground, we can produce enough methane to power a lot of combined cycle power plants that are cleaner and more efficient. Decades ago, it was just cheaper to mine coal, haul it long distances by rail and burn it. The fly ash was someone else's problem, just like the mercury, sulfur and particulates.

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