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Tomblin touts coal mining, gas drilling

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Acting Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin promised Wednesday night to continue to fight to protect the coal industry and urged state residents to embrace increased natural gas drilling as part of a broader energy production agenda.

But Tomblin did not take advantage of his State of the State address to promote his own Department of Environmental Protection's proposal for wholesale changes in the way drilling is regulated. And the acting governor vowed he would "aggressively pursue" a lawsuit to block Obama administration plans to limit mountaintop removal mining.

Tomblin's speech drew strong support from lobbyists for the coal and gas industries, but left environmentalists concerned about the direction he'll take West Virginia.

"I think it's terribly short-sighted not to also mention the serious problems that are developing with some of this mining and some of this drilling," said Cindy Rank of the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy.

On coal issues, Tomblin briefly mentioned the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster and the previous tragedies at the Sago and Aracoma mines. But Tomblin indicated no plans to take up legislative proposals -- including one to make corporate officials more accountable for safety performance -- that former Gov. Joe Manchin also deferred action on until after the Upper Big Branch probe concludes.

"When we determine the cause that contributed to that accident, we will do all that is necessary to make sure it never happens again," the acting governor said.

Tomblin said that the Obama administration "seems focused on bringing a crushing halt to one of the cheapest, most reliable forms of energy we have ever known."

"He talked about the coal industry and did it absolutely in spades," said Bill Raney, president of the West Virginia Coal Association.

Tomblin also promoted efforts by American Electric Power to develop greenhouse gas emissions control equipment in the state, but -- in an apparent criticism of federal cap-and-trade legislation -- said if the goal is reducing carbon dioxide emissions "then we should take a more sensible approach to achieving that end."

DEP Secretary Randy Huffman said that it was "very progressive" for the acting governor to "talk as openly and bluntly about the greenhouse gases and the carbon issues that the country faces."

But Don Garvin, lead lobbyist for the West Virginia Environmental Council, said that most experts believe the federal climate change bill that state political leaders generally condemned would have helped the coal industry and utilities develop and deploy carbon capture equipment.

"[Tomblin] ought to be on board with federal legislation to curb greenhouse gas emissions and to provide funding for research to further develop the process," Garvin said.

On gas drilling, Tomblin said that new drilling technology and the Marcellus shale formation combine to create an opportunity not only for direct jobs, but for spin-off development of processing plants like the one that Dominion Energy announced Wednesday it will build near the PPG Industries chemical plant in Marshall County.

"We are just now beginning to know what this potential is, and I think the governor's people now understand what this potential is," said Corky DeMarco, lobbyist for the state Oil and Natural Gas Association.

Huffman said he was not disappointed that the governor did not promote DEP's proposal for new regulations and a doubling of his agency's oil and gas office staff. Tomblin supports the measure, Huffman said, but simply wanted it to be introduced as a DEP bill rather than part of the governor's legislative agenda.

But Rank said she was amazed that the acting governor didn't urge lawmakers to pass some sort of package for new drilling regulations.

"He never even mentioned it," Rank said. "That's a slight of what I would consider good efforts by DEP to address the problems that we all know exist." Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kward@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.


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