Wednesday, January 27, 2010

The New Republic: Old Senator, New Tricks What’s behind Robert Byrd’s surprising smackdown of Big Coal?

Jesse Zwick writes for TNR, corroborating Politico's earlier report that Sen. Robert Byrd may have finally gained some perspective on coal:

Blankenship's stunt created a backlash from some key quarters of the state. Massey is a notoriously anti-union firm, and the fact that the rally was being held on Labor Day didn't sit well with many in the United Mine Workers Association (UMWA), still a major political force in the state. Many of West Virginia's union members are already uncomfortable with mountaintop-removal mining, which is less labor-intensive than traditional methods and has led to a steep decline in the size of West Virginia's coal workforce—from 62,500 in 1979 to about 22,000 today. "I don't even like to compare what they're doing to what we're doing," says retired miner and UMWA member Terry Steele. Moreover, the event only underscored the fact that Blankenship has long tried to frame coal as a partisan issue. In a state where registered Democrats still outnumber Republicans by a wide margin, he's devoted more than $6 million to helping the GOP take over.

As Massey and other coal companies have become increasingly obstreperous, Byrd has begun to notice. At a public hearing on mountaintop-removal mining last October, members of the front group Friends of Coal packed the meeting and shouted down West Virginians trying to lodge their complaints. (Many of the citizens in attendance were convinced that employers had encouraged or paid their miners to show up and disrupt the proceedings. "I've been in unions, I know how the companies fight, and these guys were being stoked," says retired miner Joe Stanley, who was at the meeting.) A Byrd staff member was in attendance, and it appears that the industry's tactics grated. "I think those meetings did play a role [in Byrd's shift]," says one former mining official and close observer of state politics. "Everybody watched the debate and saw the vile nature of it." And the gap between the coal industry and Byrd only widened in November, when the West Virginia Chamber of Commerce called on the state's representatives in Congress to try to block health care reform until the EPA "backs down on its campaign against coal." In his December statement, Byrd called the demand "foolish" and "morally indefensible."

There's also the climate question. Byrd's not about to become an environmentalist; even in his op-ed, he insisted that coal was here to stay. But he seems to recognize that the realities of global warming will force the country to rethink how it uses coal sooner or later and that the state’s companies aren’t playing a constructive role. (Blankenship, for instance, has criticized coal-heavy utilities in other states, like Duke Energy, for working with Congress on climate issues.) Byrd's longtime mantra, according to political historian Robert Rupp, is that "It's better to be at the table than on the menu." And so he seems willing to spend what's likely his last term in Congress getting West Virginia to realize that, in the end, obstructionism won't serve the state very well.

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