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.