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Tomblin speech light on talk of energy issues

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.

"He started out great, talking about preparing for our future, but then he totally ignored talking about a West Virginia future without coal," said Don Garvin, lead lobbyist for the West Virginia Environmental Council.

Tomblin has refused requests that he form a special commission to plan a coalfield transition, and has declined to support proposals from various groups and Senate President Jeff Kessler, D-Marshall, for some sort of a "future fund" that would use coal and gas taxes for education, infrastructure and economic development programs.

"West Virginia needs to invest in transitioning our economy by ensuring that we use our rich natural resources to create sustainable wealth that is reinvested in our people," said Ted Boettner, executive director of the West Virginia Center for Budget and Policy.

Tomblin talked about last June's derecho, calling it "storm like no other we'd ever experienced before," but did not mention climate change and its links to increasing incidents of "extreme weather" in the state or around the world.

The governor mentioned briefly that his plan for state budget cuts "does not take money away from mine safety programs." But environmental groups noted that Tomblin made no such promise regarding the state Department of Environmental Protection, an agency that has struggled with a shortage of natural gas inspectors and a long-standing need staffing problem in its strip-mine enforcement program.

The governor praised West Virginia's coal miners, saying their dedication "is the work that built our state and the work that sustains it."

But he didn't mention that two miners have been killed on the job in the last week, while a third remained in critical condition Wednesday night after an accident the prior evening. Tomblin made no mention of a series of failures by his administration to implement key portions of last year's mine safety legislation.

"The governor is absolutely right that the work of miners built our state and sustains us, but the absence of real meaningful change on mine safety and health is a failure of the Legislature and the executive," said Davitt McAteer, a longtime mine safety advocate who led an independent team that investigated the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster.

On natural gas issues, Dave McMahon, a lawyer with the West Virginia Surface Owners' Rights Organization, said his group would like to see more discussion of expanding the state's new drilling law to provide more protections to surface landowners -- something the state Supreme Court recently suggested might be needed.

"We hope this new Legislature does not weaken, and may even strengthen, the DEP's proposed rule carrying out the governor's Marcellus Shale bill passed in 2011," McMahon said.

Tomblin also did not mention the push for stronger state efforts to improve energy efficiency, an issue that's getting more attention nationally with President Obama's call in his State of the Union address to cut in half the energy wasted by homes and businesses.

"West Virginia certainly lags behind the rest of the country in energy efficiency," said Cathy Kunkel of the group Energy Efficient West Virginia. Energy efficiency efforts will lower utility bills, Kunkel said, "and also create more jobs per dollar than investments in the traditional electric and natural gas utility sectors."

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


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