CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- U.S. Sen. Jay Rockefeller believes that pressing ahead on mine safety and miners' health can advance the debate over the future of coal, and he wants the industry to abandon what he considers a combative and close-minded approach to that discussion, the West Virginia Democrat told The Associated Press in a recent interview.
The state's senior senator said industry leaders and their political allies have focused on President Obama and his U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to the exclusion of the other forces sapping demand for this fossil fuel.
But Rockefeller has also reached out to the industry for help drafting upcoming legislation to promote ways to harness coal's energy without releasing so much carbon dioxide.
"I believe clean coal has a future," Rockefeller told the AP. "I'm not against coal. I'm against their refusal to recognize what their future is, and their decision to focus all of their attention and all of their money on saying, 'You're either against the EPA or you're not.'"
Rockefeller blasted the industry's talk of a "war on coal" in June remarks on the Senate floor. He decried what he views as a "daily onslaught" of "carefully orchestrated messages that strike fear in the hearts of West Virginians and feed uncertainty about coal's future."
"I thought it was very important to call out the coal operators for being so negative," Rockefeller said. "It's having such a damaging effect."
A variety of factors have combined to stymie the industry. Natural gas prices hit 10-year lows in April, a month when government data show natural-gas-fired power generation equaled coal-powered generation for the first time on record. A mild winter also reduced demand. European economic woes and signs of cooling growth in Asia, meanwhile, threaten coal exports.
Alpha Natural Resources Inc., a leading coal producer, blamed such market forces last week when it reported a $2.2 billion second-quarter loss to stockholders.
"The facts are that natural gas is eating coal's lunch right now, and that will continue while their prices are low," Rockefeller told the AP. President Bill Raney of the West Virginia Coal Association said his group greeted Rockefeller's remarks about the industry with "a great deal of disappointment."
Raney cited several federal court rulings that he said underscore its concerns with the EPA. One, issued late last month, found that the EPA had overstepped its powers by setting up water-quality criteria for Appalachian coal mining operations.