Politico has a very interesting piece on Senator Robert Byrd, a Democrat of West Virginia and a longtime supporter of the coal industry, perhaps gaining some perspective. The coal industry has not gained similar perspective:
An extraordinary recent statement by Sen. Robert Byrd has stunned his coal-dependent home state and left West Virginia politicians and business leaders scrambling to understand the timing and motivation behind his unexpected discourse on the future of the coal industry.
In an early December op-ed piece released by his office — also recorded on audio by the frail 92-year-old senator — Byrd argued that resistance to constraints on mountaintop-removal coal mining and a failure to acknowledge that “the truth is that some form of climate legislation will likely become public policy” represent the real threat to the future of coal.
“Change has been a constant throughout the history of our coal industry,” Byrd said in the 1,161-word statement. “West Virginians can choose to anticipate change and adapt to it or resist and be overrun by it. One thing is clear: The time has arrived for the people of the Mountain State to think long and hard about which course they want to choose.”
In almost any other state, Byrd’s remarks might not have caused such a stir. But in West Virginia, where the coal industry — even in its currently diminished form — accounts for 30,000 jobs and more than $3.5 billion in gross annual product and provides roughly half of all American coal exports, according to the state coal association, his statement reverberated across the political landscape.
And it wasn’t just the astonishing nature of the remarks that made jaws drop. It was the fact that it was Byrd — a West Virginia political titan, the longest-serving member of Congress in American history, the son of a coal miner and a longtime defender of coal interests — who made them.
“To me, it was quite amazing. It was the first time that he had been at all critical of the coal industry,” said Ken Hechler, a veteran West Virginia Democratic officeholder who served as congressman from 1959 to 1977. “It was truly unexpected.”
“Over the years, he’s been a proponent of coal,” said Art Kirkendoll, the influential Democratic president of the Logan County Commission, located in the heart of the state’s coal country. “He’s the ranking senator in the Senate, a very powerful man, has accomplished a lot of things. Anytime he makes a statement — especially about a controversial issue — it has an impact on things.”
Byrd’s timing also guaranteed the state would sit up and take notice, since it came at a time of intense anxiety over King Coal’s future in West Virginia. It’s a predicament underscored by the recent House passage of cap-and-trade legislation.
Some local business leaders have called the Obama administration’s environmental policies hostile to the coal industry, with the Environmental Protection Agency’s move to delay permits for mountaintop removal leading the state Chamber of Commerce to accuse the agency of waging a “war on coal.”
In November, amid concerns about the direction of administration policy, West Virginia Democratic Gov. Joe Manchin held a rare closed-door meeting in Charleston with Democratic Sen. Jay Rockefeller, Republican Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, Democratic Rep. Nick Rahall, Byrd advisers and executives from the state’s top coal companies. Leaders emerged pledging to speak with “one voice” to get clarity from the White House on its environmental priorities.
“We’ve seen the ups and downs of the coal industry before, but we’ve never seen anything like this: an outright attack on the coal industry,” said state Sen. Ron Stollings, a Democrat who represents the coalfields of Boone County, the state’s top coal-producing county. “We’ve never, ever been in a situation where there would never be any more coal.”
“Collectively, the coal industry faces the largest political challenge it ever has,” said Al Cross, director for the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues at the University of Kentucky. “A lot of them don’t want to change, and their ability to adapt to change is uncertain. The whole clean coal industry is uncertain.”
“We’re talking about the future of the industry,” Cross said.
For West Virginia’s political and business establishment — which has strained to remain respectful of the elder statesman in the wake of his remarks — Byrd’s address was simply more proof that Washington was lining up against coal.
But the tone of Byrd’s remarks didn’t help either. He pointedly criticized coal industry leaders and others for “stoking fear” over the EPA’s efforts. And he excoriated a request from the West Virginia Chamber of Commerce for the congressional delegation to withhold their votes for health care reform until the Obama administration and Congress backed off its “war on coal/energy.”
“I believe that the notion of holding the health care of over 300 million Americans hostage in exchange for a handful of coal permits is beyond foolish; it is morally indefensible,” Byrd said.
Manchin, on several occasions, has even called for Byrd to clarify his remarks, telling the Charleston Daily Mail last Friday, “I want to know if he’s against mountaintop removal completely or if he just wants to modify it. I want to make sure we’re still on the same page. If we have some clarification, it will help all of us.”
Last weekend, West Virginia Coal Association President Bill Raney took to the pages of the Beckley Register Herald to write, “The coal industry accepts Sen. Byrd’s call for dialogue, and in so doing, we must respectfully disagree with many of the comments and clear up some misconceptions set forth in the statement.”
Don Blankenship, the powerful head of West Virginia coal giant Massey Energy Co. and a vocal opponent of Obama’s climate change efforts, was quoted in news accounts accusing Byrd of “riding the fence” in seeking to curry favor with the White House while retaining his allegiance to West Virginia.
“I think it came as a surprise to people in the state,” Blankenship told POLITICO. “It seemed a bit inconsistent with his opinions on mining and his statements on surface mining.”
Surprise was a theme among state leaders when asked for their response to the furor, especially since Byrd’s position represents a departure from his long record as a fierce defender of the coal interests and mountaintop removal.
The situation has been clouded by Byrd’s advanced age, his limited public appearances and the fact that he has been in and out of the hospital several times this year.
“His pronouncement really took me by surprise,” said West Virginia Chamber of Commerce President Steve Roberts, who has emerged as an outspoken critic of Byrd’s address. “Sen. Byrd’s statement came as quite a surprise to us and to most West Virginia leaders.”
“It was very surprising,” said state Delegate Ralph Rodighiero, a Logan County Democrat. “People were devastated.”
Even Byrd’s Democratic Senate colleague Rockefeller, himself a former West Virginia governor, acknowledged that he had been caught off guard by the boldness of Byrd’s remarks.
But Rockefeller said Byrd had recognized the ever-increasing importance of addressing climate change — adding that the longtime senator benefited from years of hindsight.
Asked why Byrd had decided to act now, Rockefeller paused.
“Perspective,” he said.
Over the past six months, however, Byrd has dropped hints that some environmental activists have interpreted as signs he was taking a new approach to coal. In June, he announced that staffers would investigate the effects of mountaintop removal to surrounding areas. And even as he expressed skepticism of the Democratic push for climate change legislation this year, Byrd declared in late October that “we will show that clean coal can be a ‘green’ energy.”
“Our eldest statesman seems to be our only leader that is thinking about the future and how it is time to turn to a low-carbon economy,” said Vivian Stockman of the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, an organization that is rallying against mountaintop removal. “It was a big boost.”
Jesse Jacobs, a Byrd spokesman, declined to comment on Byrd’s statement, saying it “speaks for itself.”