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Governor dodges major energy issues in speech

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Energy and environmental issues took a back seat Wednesday night, as Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin generally dodged discussion of concerns over climate change, mountaintop removal and the Marcellus Shale gas-drilling boom.

Tomblin took a somewhat toned-down approach to criticizing the Obama administration's coal policies, and insisted the industry has a strong future, but proposed no programs to improve health and safety protections for miners.

In his State of the State address, Tomblin touted his 2011 gas-drilling bill, but did not mention growing evidence from state-sponsored studies that the measure is far too weak.

"It's the same old thing," said Cindy Rank, mining chairwoman for the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy. "There's nothing positive in terms of protecting things that we see as important for the future of the state."

The governor's 44-minute speech included only two relatively short environmental or energy sections, one on natural gas and the potential for a "cracker plant" and the other on continuing challenges facing coal.

Tomblin did not mention climate change or renewable energy. He did not offer personal support for establishing a "future fund" that would help diversify the state's economy, but said West Virginia is already "attracting new and diversified jobs."

On natural gas, Tomblin praised the 2011 "Horizontal Well Control Act," saying it gave industry a "predictable regulatory framework" and is now "recognized as a model for horizontal drilling in the region."

Neither the governor nor legislative leaders have proposed any steps to deal with the findings of state Department of Environmental Protection-sponsored studies that have recommended additional protections from drilling and said the state needs to get a better handle on how waste from the Marcellus boom is handled and disposed of.

"Even though the studies pointed to the need for regulation on noise and dust and air and setbacks from people's houses, DEP did not issue any new regulations and the governor is apparently not suggesting any new legislation," said Dave McMahon, a lawyer who follows drilling issues for the West Virginia Surface Owners Rights Organization.

Charlie Burd, executive director of the Independent Oil and Gas Association, said his group believes the 2011 law "has worked quite well for the industry and the state." Burd said the governor was right to point to the law playing a role in the potential location of a natural gas "cracker" plant in the state.

"There was a tremendous amount of work put into almost every word of that act, from the governor's perspective and from leadership in the House and the Senate, and those areas that were addressed were certainly vetted pretty well, and I think that the industry has worked within that framework," Burd said.

In discussing coal, Tomblin touted Carbonyx, a Texas-based company that's creating 60 jobs with a Jackson County plant to turn West Virginia coal into a carbon alloy replacement for steel-making coke.

"To keep our coal industry alive and well - and I promise you we will - we must continue to seek out new markets and uses for it, while doing what we can to help the industry reduce costs, and be more productive, efficient, safe and environmentally friendly," the governor said.

Tomblin did not address a variety of setbacks in his administration's implementation of a 2012 mine safety law the governor called "comprehensive," or discuss a new lawsuit and a state-sponsored report that called for far more broad-reaching safety and health reforms.

"I am distressed by the lack of consideration for mine safety in the governor's speech," said Caitlin O'Dell, a Greenbrier County woman whose husband was killed in a November 2012 mining accident.

O'Dell is one of two petitioners asking the state Supreme Court to step in to end a 3-3 deadlock between industry and labor members of the state's Board of Coal Mine Safety and Health on requiring "proximity detection" technology that would protect miners from being crushed by fast-moving underground mine equipment.

"I had hoped he might recognize the need to restructure the Board of Coal Mine Health and Safety," O'Dell said. "With coal being one of our major industries, the safety of our miners should be a major priority."

In his speech, Tomblin did repeat his promises to "never back down" from what he called the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's "misguided policies on coal." But he added that, "we should remind ourselves a challenge doesn't always lead to confrontation." The governor recalled his meeting last summer with EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy, and said, "We have been hard hit" by agency policies, but added, "With planning and perseverance I believe the obstacles can be overcome."

Bill Raney, president of the West Virginia Coal Association, said his group would be happy with a less confrontational approach, but is far from convinced that EPA is interested in what the coal industry has to say.

"If we can achieve something that way, then that will be great," Raney said. "It's a great idea, but they won't even talk to us. I'd love it if we could sit down and have a reasonable conversation."

Boone County native Dustin White, an activist with the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, said he was disappointed -- but not surprised -- that the governor did not mention the growing scientific evidence showing that residents near mountaintop removal operations face greater risks of serious illnesses and premature death.

"He talked a lot about things being like a garden, but you can't really grow a garden with poisoned water," White said.

Ted Boettner, executive director of the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy, said it was "very disappointing" that Tomblin did not mention and offer support for creation of a "future fund." Boettner's group has championed the move, which has received backing from leaders in both the House and Senate.

But Jeremy Richardson, a senior energy analyst with the Union of Concerned Scientists, said that Tomblin's comments about how "a challenge doesn't always lead to confrontation" could provide an opening for better discussions about the state's future.

"There's an actual tone of 'we could work with the EPA', and I thought that was encouraging," Richardson said. "I think it's time for a new conversation. It's time for a new way of thinking about these issues."  

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


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