State's energy focus debated at summit
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- With West Virginia's coal industry under growing pressure and its natural gas business booming, energy company officials gathered Tuesday to discuss new environmental rules, market realities and even how the state should respond to threats posed by climate change.
Several hundred industry officials and energy watchers heard from a lineup of speakers that was heavy on coal and natural gas representatives, but also included a scientist who argued that diversifying the state's energy portfolio is a key to West Virginia's future.
"It's not about bad-mouthing coal," said Jeremy Richardson, senior energy analyst for the Union of Concerned Scientists. "But it's absolutely critical that we begin to see ourselves as more than just coal in West Virginia."
A West Virginia native from a mining family, Richardson has been working to educate the state about climate change and to encourage a focus on diversifying the economy as the coal industry declines.
Richardson said the debate in the scientific community is over when it comes to central issues like the fact that the planet is warming and that human activities -- mostly burning fossil fuels -- are a central cause of the problem. He said that coal is being beaten in the marketplace not only by natural gas, but by the declining price of renewable energy like wind power.
And, Richardson said, while global actions are needed and emissions are rising in the developing world, it's not so unreasonable to expect the United States to take the lead in fighting climate change.
"The developed world is still responsible for the lion's share of historic emissions and once you emit the carbon, it stays in the atmosphere for many years," Richardson said. "The developed world has a unique responsibility to deal with this problem."
That message was far from the dominant one Tuesday at Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin's Energy Summit. The event started with a speech in which coal executive Bob Murray criticized the Obama administration's environmental policies, and continued with other presentations that warned about federal rules that could harm coal.
"We think the federal government ought to be in the encouraging business," said Bill Raney, president of the West Virginia Coal Association. "They're in the discouraging business."
Deck Slone, a vice president of Arch Coal, delivered a talk called, "Meeting the Climate Change." He argued that climate change is a global problem that requires a global solution, saying that U.S. Environmental Protection Agency limits on greenhouse emissions could not solve the problem without action by other countries.
Slone said that technology to capture and store greenhouse emissions is needed, but that investing more money to improve that technology would be a better approach than passing regulations to require it.
In a presentation called "Coal and Water: The Cost to Comply," Alpha Natural Resources vice president Gene Kitts argued that new requirements to curb selenium discharges and limit electrical conductivity in mine effluent will be too expensive and provide little -- if any -- real environmental benefit.
Other speakers discussed the boom in natural gas drilling in the state's Marcellus Shale region and efforts to expand the use of both propane and compressed natural gas as transportation fuels. And numerous speakers touted how the potential location of a natural gas "cracker" plant in the state would revitalize the chemical and manufacturing businesses.
"We can't let our resources leave here again without value added," said Corky DeMarco, executive director of the West Virginia Oil and Gas Association. "We did it with timber. We did it with coal."
Charles Patton, president of Appalachian Power, cautioned attendees that competition from cheap natural gas makes it unlikely that any utility is going to build a new coal-fired power plant anytime soon. But, Patton said, large existing coal plants with advanced controls for sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides are able to compete with even new gas plants.
"The outlook for natural gas is very positive, but the death of coal is greatly exaggerated," Patton said.
Other presentations included discussions of the use of wood pellets for home heating, the benefits of energy efficient construction and the Charleston Area Alliance's groundbreaking work on energy efficiency in the city's East End neighborhood.
"Energy efficiency is not the sexy topic," said the alliance's Cullen Naumoff. "But energy efficiency is something that is very needed. It's a win-win solution."
Reach Ken Ward Jr. at email@example.com or 304-348-1702.