CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin on Wednesday night promised to keep fighting tougher federal regulation of the coal industry, touted continued growth of the state's natural gas business, and said he would spare West Virginia's mine safety agency the budget cuts hitting other sectors of state government.
But in a speech heavy on details of Tomblin's proposed overhaul of the state school system, the governor focused less on energy issues -- and said hardly anything about pressing issues in communities were coal is mined and gas is produced.
"I think he did a disservice to the natural wealth of the state, in ignoring what is happening to the workers and to the people in our communities," said Cindy Rank, longtime leader of the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy.
Jim Sconyers, chairman of the state chapter of the Sierra Club, said he was "taken aback" that the governor spent so little time talking about coal.
Sconyers said he would have liked to hear Tomblin talk about coal's contribution to global warming or about the growing scientific evidence that residents living near mountaintop removal mining operations face greater risks of serious illnesses, including cancer and birth defects.
"Energy was just not really in the picture," Sconyers said. "Maybe it's just gotten so controversial that he didn't even want to bring it up."
Tomblin did bring up both coal and natural gas, though they were discussed less than last year, when lawmakers had just finished a special session on Marcellus Shale regulations and the governor was proposing a new package of mine safety rules.
This year, for example, the governor said that West Virginia is "making the most of the opportunities associated with" the state's abundant supplies of natural gas.
"We are working with the private sector to take advantage of our natural gas resources by converting more vehicles to compressed natural gas," Tomblin said.
In one paragraph dedicated to coal, the governor called the industry "an integral part of West Virginia" and promised to keep up his battle against U.S. Environmental Protection Agency efforts to curb coal's negative impacts on the environment, public health, and the global climate.
"I believe in the production of coal, its value to our country, and I will continue to do everything that I can to fight the EPA and its misguided attempts to cripple this industry," Tomblin said.
That one paragraph was good enough for West Virginia Coal Association President Bill Raney.
"I thought it was a whale of a speech," Raney said. "The important thing is to keep our operations open and keep our people working and make sure we can keep mining coal."
Tomblin lamented that, "significant declines in the production of coal have battered West Virginia's economy." But observers noted that the governor offered little in the way of a vision of how to diversify coalfield economies as the industry continues to decline in the face of mined-out reserves, low natural gas prices, and competition from other coal basins.