By Lawrence Messina
West Virginia is the nation’s second-leading coal producer, and several of its elected officials on Tuesday predicted lost mining jobs and higher utility bills from President Barack Obama’s plan to target carbon dioxide from power plants.
While Obama’s challenge of such criticisms failed to sway these officials, a major electricity provider and Mountain State residents offered more measured views of the proposal. At
least one environmental group, meanwhile, called for additional steps to combat fossil fuels.
U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, a fellow Democrat who as governor battled Obama’s Environmental Protection Agency over mining, said the plan to regulate heat-trapping gases from new and existing power plants will prove “completely impossible to meet with existing technology.”
“And if it’s not feasible, it’s not reasonable,” Manchin said in a statement.
U.S. Rep. Nick Rahall, a Democrat who represents West Virginia’s southern coalfields, condemned Obama’s plan as “misguided, misinformed and untenable.” Like Manchin, he and GOP Reps. Shelley Moore Capito and David McKinley all warned that the proposal threatened both the jobs and the cheap power source that coal provides.
“Today’s announcement is another move in the president’s tyrannical game of picking winners and losers in the energy industry,” Capito said in her statement.
“Since he was elected, President Obama has waged an unrelenting war against coal,” McKinley said. “His first effort to promote his anti-coal ideology was an energy tax proposal that was stopped by Congress. His new strategy is to go around Congress and impose his agenda by using unelected bureaucrats at the EPA to make decisions that will have a disastrous effect on the economy of West Virginia and America as a whole.
“The regulations the president is proposing would cause thousands of Americans to lose their jobs and raise electricity costs by steering our economy from low-cost energy to more expensive sources. Based on unproven models and theories about what will happen in the future, the president is taking actions that will have real, immediate, negative impacts on our economy today.
“For years the Obama Administration has denied waging a war on coal, despite dozens of actions that indicate otherwise. Emblematic of the president’s aversion to coal, one of his energy advisors was quoted today saying ‘a war on coal is exactly what’s needed.’ But tell that to the thousands of miners who will no longer be able to provide for their families, or the senior on a fixed income whose electric bill will go up.
“With millions of Americans still struggling to make ends meet, we should be finding ways to grow our economy not derail it. Imposing ideologically motivated and unrealistic regulations makes it difficult to strike a balance between protecting the environment and utilizing the energy our economy needs. I will continue to fight against new regulations that will hurt working men and women with higher energy costs and fewer jobs.”
Obama sought to confront such allegations when he outlined his plan in a Tuesday speech. He said such arguments greeted previous steps to protect the environment. The president also cited $8 billion in federal loan guarantees to spur technologies that can keep carbon dioxide produced by power plants from being released into the atmosphere.
The plan’s impact on jobs and energy costs will hinge on provisions that will take months to develop and years to implement. That had Sen. Jay Rockefeller calling for more details.
“To begin with, we need to see a timeline, a cost estimate and to understand how communities that have relied on coal are going to be supported once these proposals take effect,” the West Virginia Democrat said in a statement. “I’m deeply concerned that, in its current form, there’s not enough emphasis in the president’s plan on the people who are the backbone of our economy and the fabric of our nation.”
Burning coal provided almost half the country’s electricity nearly a decade ago, but such factors as cheaper natural gas helped reduce its share of the fuel mix to 37 percent by last year, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. More than 90 percent of the electricity produced in West Virginia comes from coal, the agency’s latest figures show.
The president is already deeply unpopular in West Virginia, at least partly because of his coal policies. Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin’s administration is suing federal environmental regulators in one legal challenge and supporting mining interests in another. Tomblin did not immediately comment on Tuesday’s proposal, through state Attorney General Patrick Morrisey joined fellow Republican counterparts from Alabama, Montana and Oklahoma to criticize the plan as “burdensome environmental overregulation.”
American Electric Power believes that utilities can continue to reduce carbon dioxide releases with minimal economic pain, but only if Obama’s policy gives them enough time and flexibility, spokeswoman Melissa McHenry said. She also said regulators must recognize the role to be played by the scheduled retirement of older power plants.
“The president appears to be taking a balanced approach to addressing the issue,” McHenry said in a statement.
Kevin Richards, a 40-year-old banker from Poca who stopped his motorcycle at a convenience store across the Kanawha River from AEP’s coal-fired John Amos plant, said he didn’t mind Obama ramping up wind and solar projects.
“But it seems to me that before you start eliminating some technologies in favor of new ones, you need to make sure that the new ones work, they’re efficient, they’re plentiful enough to be able to take the place of others,” Richards said. “Any advancement is going to create some natural dishevelment. It’s going to put people out of work. That’s just natural evolutionary law.”
Poca’s Pam Yates, whose husband recently retired as a coal miner, had a simple message for the president on West Virginia coal: “Leave it alone.”
“I think it’s a bad idea that he does it,” Yates said. “Look how many people he’s going to put out of work. West Virginia’s already hurting now.”
She worried that a hit to the state’s economy will trickle down to the future of West Virginia’s children and the quality of education.
Future generations also were on the mind of John Needham of Inverness, Fla.
Needham, who lives next to a power plant, said during a stop for gas and lunch in Cross Lanes en route home from his mother’s funeral in Waterbury, Conn., that he didn’t mind Obama’s decision one bit.
“You’ve got to worry about your grandkids, and your grandkids’ grandkids,” Needham said. “That’s the way I look at it. I recycle everything, because if people didn’t, in another 10 years, then we’re going to be up to our ears in garbage.”
While calling Tuesday’s proposal a good first step, Executive Director Tom Cormons of the environmental group Appalachian Voices contrasted its $8 billion in loan guarantees with the $250 million it offers to help rural utilities finance renewable energy and efficiency investments.
“It’s clear that we need to see a much stronger commitment,” Cormons said in a statement.