Coal lobby wary, but hopeful of industry's future
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Coal industry lobbyists said Thursday that mining still has a bright future in West Virginia but complained that President Obama's re-election will continue to bring new regulations that operators fear will hamper their business.
Industry officials gathered in Charleston this week for the West Virginia Coal Association's 40th Annual Mining Symposium. They heard speeches and took in policy briefings, checked out new equipment and lobbied legislators. About 700 people registered for the three-day event at the Civic Center.
And as they do most years at the symposium, coal company lobbyists, lawyers and executives warned that overzealous regulators, troublemaking activists and meddling lawyers are making it tough for the industry to mine a key energy source and steelmaking ingredient.
"There's no doubt we're in troubling times," said Jim Laurita, the association's chairman, president of MEPCO and one of the developers of the Longview Power Plant outside Morgantown.
Laurita said the global recession continues to hamper the industry and noted fierce competition from low-priced natural gas, but also said that most Americans don't understand that the Obama administration is taking the country down a "dangerous path."
"The general population isn't being told all of the facts," Laurita said. "We need to continue to communicate the importance of coal."
Speakers at the symposium rarely mentioned reasons behind government and citizen group efforts to more strictly regulate coal: Coal burning's impacts on public health and significant contribution to global climate change, mounting evidence that strip-mining damages Appalachian forests and streams, and a growing body of science that shows residents living near mountaintop removal face increased risks of serious health problems.
Coal industry officials waged a massive -- but ultimately unsuccessful -- public relations effort to kick Obama out of the White House. They declared the administration's regulatory efforts a "war on coal," despite much evidence that coal plant closures and mine layoffs were mostly caused by the expansion of natural gas drilling and, in Appalachia, the mining out of easy-to-get coal reserves.
Nicholas DeIuliis, president of CONSOL Energy, blamed coal's problems on an "ideological assault" on fossil fuels by "radical components of the environmental movement."
And David Flannery, a Charleston lawyer who challenges air pollution rules on behalf of utility companies, said the Obama administration isn't just against coal.
"Deny it if you want to, but there's no denying it," Flannery said. "They have a war on fossil fuels."
Flannery rattled off a long list of U.S. Environmental Protection Agency rules that are either already being fought in court or are likely to end up there once they are finalized.
"We take direct offense to all this stuff, because it's an assault on our markets," said Bill Raney, the longtime coal association president.
Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin renewed his often-stated promise to continue to oppose federal government efforts to more strictly regulate coal, and personally endorsed state legislation industry lobbyists are hoping will weaken West Virginia's water quality limits for selenium runoff from mining operations.
"I'm a native of the southern coalfields and I will always fight for coal," Tomblin said during a morning speech to the symposium.
Attorney General Patrick Morrisey promised that "a number of people" in his office would be "reading every line" of any new federal environmental regulations with an eye toward challenging "federal overreach."
"I think that the state of West Virginia needs to become more aggressive in how it responds to these regulations," Morrisey said.
Jeff Herholdt, director of the state Division of Energy, said the state agency is doing all it can to help continue to promote coal as a fuel of the future -- for the nation and the rest of the world.
In a new five-year energy plan made public last week, the division pledged to "advocate the importance of retaining coal-powered electric generation to ensure the continuation of affordable electricity to residential, commercial, and industrial users."
Herholdt assured coal industry officials that the state's "alternative energy portfolio" requirement would have very little impact on coal production or use.
"This is not bringing in the other energy sources," Herholdt said. "We're not incentivizing renewables with this portfolio."
Herholdt said that many other states are saying they won't want coal-fired power, and having an "alternative portfolio" standard on the books is as much as public relations effort by the state as anything else.
"It would be easy for us to say we do not want renewables," he said. "But the road ahead for us is difficult. It would certainly help if we could show we are appreciative of other energy sources.
"Everybody is taking a shot at coal," he said. "We're trying to be appreciative of everyone's concerns."
Later, in an interview, Herholdt again emphasized that the program is not aimed at reducing coal use or even at tackling climate change -- a problem most of the world's experts say is caused by human activities like burning coal and needs to be urgently addressed.
"We're the only state that has an alternative portfolio standard that would be met with 100 percent coal," Herholdt said. "There's a lot of paranoia out there. Coal is not evil. Coal is a tremendous resource."
Herholdt, the state's top energy official, talked in any detail about climate change only when asked about it, and then said he hasn't been convinced that the issue is such a big deal.
"Climate is not a science that is final," he said. "There are people on both sides of the equation. Global warming -- is that a natural phenomenon as opposed to something we're doing? I don't see that as a slam dunk."
Reach Ken Ward Jr. at email@example.com or 304-348-1702.