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W.Va. Democrats, others plan pro-coal trip to D.C.

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- State Democratic Party leaders, along with union and business leaders, announced Tuesday they are sending a 17-person delegation to Washington, D.C., August 1 in an effort to prevent new restrictions on coal-fired electric power plants.

Larry Puccio, chairman of the West Virginia Democratic Party, said this is the first time such a wide coalition is expressing concerns about tougher carbon emission regulations proposed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency under the Obama administration. West Virginia political leaders have expressed such concerns for years.

Next week's visit to Washington is supported by the West Virginia AFL-CIO, West Virginia Chamber of Commerce, United Mine Workers of America and West Virginia Coal Association.

"This has never happened before," Puccio said after the press conference. "This is not about politics. It is about people in West Virginia. We want to support our people."

Sen. Jay Rockefeller, Sen. Joe Manchin and Rep. Nick Joe Rahall, all D-W.Va., and Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin sent messages supporting next week's visit to Washington.

"We need to have an energy policy that will include all of our energy sources, including coal," said Senate President Jeff Kessler, D-Marshall.

"Many of us have different views. But if coal is destroyed, it will destroy our economy here in West Virginia," said House Speaker Tim Miley, D-Harrison. "We will continue to fight to keep our coal industry viable. Hopefully, our visit will have some impact on the people we meet in Washington."

Despite the efforts of some politicians and coal industry representatives to blame the downturn in the coal industry on an Obama administration "war on coal," the industry faces several other challenges. The discovery of the Marcellus Shale gas reserves in West Virginia and elsewhere have significantly dropped the price of natural gas, and coal from Western states is usually cheaper than that from Appalachia.

"We can't repeat what happened in McDowell County. When coal mines shut down, people and businesses left McDowell County," House Majority Leader Mike Caputo, D-Marion, said Thursday. Caputo is also vice president of UMW District 31.

Mining in McDowell County declined in large part after its major reserves of metallurgical coal began running out.

Auditor Glen Gainer said, "We support these efforts 100 percent. Unreasonable, new regulations would not only affect every coal miner in West Virginia, but everyone who uses electricity in America.

"And unreasonable regulations would put us at a disadvantage with every other country in the world," Gainer said.

Chris Hamilton, vice president of the West Virginia Coal Association, said, "Coal severance tax revenues have recently dropped from over $500 million to $400 million. A dozen coal-fired generating units [in power plants] in West Virginia have been closed. The cumulative impact is already devastating."

Other factors also play significant roles in declining production, Hamilton acknowledged, including "less expensive and abundant natural gas, warm weather and a national recession."

But he said coal is still the world's leading fuel.

"China and India can produce it at low cost. In West Virginia, we still have the ability to be the energy capital of the nation and the world.

"Coal miners typically make between $75,000 and $80,000 a year. Losing coal jobs cuts spending and buying power in coal communities. It has a real domino effect," Hamilton said.

Steve Roberts, president of the West Virginia Chamber of Commerce, said, "I am hopeful that the Obama administration might listen to those of you who are Democrats. <t40>...<t$> If we can't solve it in Washington, we have the opportunity to solve it at the ballot box."

Despite losing West Virginia by a wide margin, President Obama was re-elected last year.

Reach Paul J. Nyden at pjnyden@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5164.


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