This article is part 2 of 3, in a series by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette focusing on the human aspects and conflicts related to the role of coal and coal mining. The first and third entries are available as well: Part 1: Families and a legacy of coal; Part 3: Mine safety and politics
originally published Monday, November 22, 2010
By Daniel Malloy and Dennis B. Roddy, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
WASHINGTON — A constellation of 508 red dots stretches across a wall map in the office of Bruce Nilles, one for every power plant now burning coal in the United States. It is his job to make these stars go dark, one by one.
The director of the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign is a skinny Wisconsinite who bikes to work at the environmental group’s warren of offices in adjoining Capitol Hill townhouses. He has no illusions that America can stop burning coal tomorrow, or even 10 years from now, and still generate enough power to function. But the transition, he says, has to start now and to him that means giving no quarter. His group fights every proposed coal plant. They work to shut down the old ones.
“It’s such a large source of global warming pollution that if we don’t end coal’s contribution to global warming in two decades, it’s going to be very hard to live on a planet that we recognize,” Mr. Nilles said.
A dozen blocks away from Mr. Nilles’ office, a strangely glittering hunk of coal holds a place of honor in the memorabilia case at the National Mining Association. When it comes to coal the only ground the association’s chief lobbyist, Bruce Watzman, is giving is what can be burned.
“Coal is there,” he said. “It has proven itself year after year, year after year, year after year that it is a reliable, essential part of our energy mix. And it has to remain so.”
So, in the nation’s capital the lines are drawn in a battle likely to affect everything from the price of a kilowatt of electricity to a Greene County miner’s ability to pay for it. Income and environment, tradition and climate and two very different cultures are all colliding in Washington’s halls of power where decisions, or their absence, will have lasting ramifications.
Unease on all sides
“I wish more people would come here and see it isn’t as bad in the coal fields as they think it is,” said Dru Ellis, who machines hydraulic equipment for the mines in southern West Virginia. His brother and friends work underground.
To Keith Eshleman, a professor at the University of Maryland’s Appalachian Laboratory, which studies the region’s ecosystem, the sense that his promotion of a coal-free energy grid might offend his neighbors is acknowledged.
“I understand that somebody whose job is wedded to the mining industry is not going to be happy with people like myself going around and drawing conclusions about the problems associated with their industry,” he said. “If your livelihood’s tied to it, I understand that’s an issue.”
But both sides — industry and environmentalists — feel frustration and a hint of fear at Washington’s approach to coal in recent years, a sign of the sometimes contradictory policies the Obama administration and Congress have pursued.
President Barack Obama’s Environmental Protection Agency, headed by Lisa P. Jackson, a former environmental regulator in New Jersey, has sought to limit mountaintop removal mining at every opportunity. The industry uses the practice, in which the top of a mountain is sheared off to extract the coal within, to reach coal that cannot be reached by ordinary underground mining. Because the waste from the process is dumped in surrounding valleys, the EPA is heavily scrutinizing mountaintop mining for its impact on streams in possible violation of the Clean Water Act.
The EPA also has made moves to more ambitiously regulate coal ash, the toxic material left over after coal is burned for energy.
Most strikingly, the agency in late 2009 issued a finding that greenhouse gases pose a danger to human health — which could open the door to federal emissions controls.
The attitude of the coal industry to these developments, shared by many who live and work in Appalachia, can be neatly summed up in a billboard erected by the industry group “Friends of Coal” that greets drivers on Interstate 64 in Beckley, W.Va. It states: “Don’t let EPA bureaucrats take away our coal jobs.”
“What comes next?” Mr. Watzman ventured. “I don’t think it’s so much a surprise to us as a philosophy of where they’re going. I think it’s a surprise the speed with which they advanced the regulatory agenda and I think the expansion of the regulatory agenda beyond what has traditionally been a focus on use issues to production issues.”
As the administration aggressively pursued its agenda, Congress remained flat-footed. A bill loathed by coal producers and users to establish a cap-and-trade system, essentially putting a price on carbon emissions, passed the House but was blocked in the Senate as coal-state Democrats and a united Republican caucus never signed on. In a weak economy, anything that could raise prices for energy consumers was toxic.
The gridlocked Senate had no stomach for the reverse course, either. A proposal by Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, to bar the EPA from regulating greenhouse gases was defeated. But a similar strike against the administration — perhaps in the form of a two-year moratorium on greenhouse gas regulation — is possible with the Republicans gaining six seats in the upper chamber in this month’s midterm elections.
The politics of coal know no party in West Virginia. In two of the state’s key races this fall — Rep. Nick Rahall against Spike Maynard for the state’s third U.S. House district and Gov. Joe Manchin against John Raese for Senate — it often seemed like the candidates were competing to see who could bow most majestically before the throne of King Coal.
Mr. Rahall, a 17-term Democrat who survived in a tough race against the former state Supreme Court justice, bragged about using his clout to blunt anti-mountaintop mining sentiment in the Democratic Party. The Democrat, Mr. Manchin, who won his race to fill the seat of the late Sen. Robert C. Byrd, memorably put a rifle shot through a replica of the cap-and-trade bill in a television ad. He also filed suit against the EPA last month for its tougher scrutiny of mountaintop removal permits