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Coal leaders seek more vocal opposition to Obama

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Industry and political leaders on Tuesday launched a three-city tour they hope will generate more vocal opposition from West Virginians to Obama administration proposals to reduce coal's impacts on water and air quality, public health and global warming.

Officials from the West Virginia Coal Association and the United Mine Workers union joined with Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., for the kickoff event, held at the Embassy Suites in Charleston.

"We put people in power to do what's best for us and what's best for West Virginia is coal," said Fred Tucker, a UMW representative and co-chairman of the Coal Forum, a taxpayer-funded group that is sponsoring the meetings.

Coal Forum officials displayed a series of computer slides titled "The War on Coal" and said U.S. Environmental Protection Agency initiatives regarding coal-ash disposal, water pollution and toxic air emissions amounted to a battle against the industry "waged on land, sea and air."

"We are totally over-regulated," said state Sen. Art Kirkendoll, D-Logan. "If you say we're not, you're telling a misnomer."

Coal Forum officials put together meetings in Charleston, Wheeling and Beckley with the help of Brown Communications, one of the public relations firms that helped create and continues to promote the industry front group FACES of Coal.

The forum was created by state lawmakers years ago and has held a variety of educational events, but has also helped to oppose tougher regulation of the industry under language in state law that authorizes it to conduct "coal advocacy programs." Over the last two years, lawmakers ordered the state board that's supposed to focus on technical safety issues to spend $60,000 on Coal Forum efforts.

Coal Association President Bill Raney acknowledged that state and federal numbers show an increase in coal jobs in West Virginia during the Obama administration and since the EPA began a crackdown on mountaintop removal.

"We're proud that we were hiring more people," Raney said. "We never complained or said anything negative about hiring more workers."

On Monday, during an appearance on the statewide MetroNews radio show Talkline, Coal Association Vice President Chris Hamilton indicated that additional scrutiny from regulatory agencies helped fuel the increase in mining jobs over the last three years.

"Part of the reason the employment is up is it's costing quite a bit more to mine a ton of coal and it's taking several more people than it did a couple of years ago," Hamilton said.

Data from the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration shows first-quarter 2012 employment in the coal industry in West Virginia at 24,500, the highest levels since 1992. Coal company officials point out that there's been a flurry of layoff announcements this year by some of the region's major coal producers, including Alpha Natural Resources, Arch Coal and Patriot Coal. Those figures could show up in state and federal employment figures released for the 2nd or 3rd quarters of 2012.

Several speakers at the Coal Forum event cited outdated figures that suggested coal provides nearly half of the nation's electricity supply. More recent data from the U.S. Department of Energy shows that coal's share has been declining for years, was down to 42 percent last year and is projected to drop to 36 percent in 2012, largely because of competition from low-priced natural gas.

Promotional materials from the Coal Forum cited EPA's mountaintop removal crackdown and the federal Office of Surface Mining's rewrite of the stream "buffer zone rule" as impediments to coal production. But industry officials and political leaders who spoke focused on three EPA air pollution rules: The cross-state emissions rule, the first-ever restrictions on mercury and other air toxics, and EPA's proposal to limit greenhouse gas emissions from coal-fired power plants.

"Clean air and clean water do not stand alone in this country, not with power generation being essential to the way we live our lives," said Kelley Goes, a spokeswoman for Sen. Joe Manchin.

UMW lobbyist Bill Banig said that, in proposing its rules, EPA was not acting alone, but as a "direct result of court decisions." Congress last rewrote the Clean Air Act in 1990, Banig said, and EPA is still working to implement the law 22 years later.

Banig said, "it's an understatement to say" the UMW is disappointed with the Obama administration's proposals, but he added that the air pollution and global warming issues raised by the EPA initiatives aren't going away.

"Administrations come and go, but these issues stay," Banig said.

UMW officials are supporting efforts in the Senate to delay implementation of both the cross-state pollution rule and EPA's rule on mercury and other toxic air emissions, Banig said.

Coal Forum officials were touting a report that they said indicated the EPA's proposal to limit greenhouse emissions would essentially ban any new coal-fired power plants that did not have equipment to capture carbon dioxide emissions.

But the report, by an economist with the firm Bloomberg Government, said that the EPA proposal "probably wouldn't shift current investment patterns in the power sector. Natural gas-plants already have a compelling price advantage."

Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kward@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.


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