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Rockefeller calls on coal industry to stop 'scare tactics'

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Sen. Jay Rockefeller on Wednesday demanded that coal lobbyists stop using "scare tactics" to fight tougher pollution rules and urged them instead to join in finding ways for West Virginia -- and its mining industry -- to face the changes coming to the nation's energy system.

The West Virginia Democrat said the industry's strategy "moves us backward, not forward" and simply delays and distracts from reducing coal's negative impacts and working to diversify the state's economy.

"Coal has played an enormous part in our past and can play an enormous role in our future, but it will only happen if we face reality," Rockefeller said.

Rockefeller delivered his message in a Senate floor speech on West Virginia Day, as he announced he would vote to help defeat a Republican resolution that would have blocked the Obama administration's rules to curb mercury and other toxic air emissions from coal-fired power plants. The resolution lost on a 46-53 vote.

In a 16-minute speech, Rockefeller followed the path that the late Sen. Robert C. Byrd took in December 2009, when Byrd called out the coal industry for fighting public health protections and environmentalists for arguing the nation would be better off without any coal mining.

"Let me be clear: I'm frustrated with some of the top levels of the coal industry, but I'm not giving up hope for a strong 'clean coal' future," Rockefeller said.

Since Byrd's death two years ago this month, Rockefeller has at times shown signs of taking on the coal industry's anti-Obama campaign, acknowledging, for example, the scientific consensus about coal's role in global warming. At other times, Rockefeller has supported industry-backed legislation, such as a bill to block new rules on the disposal of toxic ash from coal-fired power plants.

On Wednesday, Rockefeller criticized "millions of dollars" in coal industry and political candidate advertising that he said tries to convince West Virginians -- and especially coal miners -- that they should "turn back the clock, ignore the present, and block the future."

Rockefeller said that concerns about coal's pollution and its impacts on global warming are real, and that the industry wastes precious time and resources trying to deny science and block any new regulations.

"The reality is that many who run the coal industry today would rather attack false enemies and deny real problems than find solutions," Rockefeller said.

Hal Quinn, president of the National Mining Association, said it was "regrettable that a number of senators" from coal states "could not see their way to supporting their communities and the nation's economic growth at a time when the need is greatest."

At issue in Wednesday's Senate vote was an effort to overturn EPA's new rule to slash mercury and other toxic emissions from the oldest, least efficient, and most polluting power plants in the country.

Rockefeller touted what he said were "enormous" health benefits of the pollution reductions, citing studies "that established the serious and long-term impact of these pollutants on premature deaths, heart attacks, hospitalizations, pregnant women, babies and children."

Rockefeller said that, "despite the barrage of ads, the EPA alone is not going to make or break coal. There are many forces exerting pressure and that agency is just one of them."

Quality coal reserves in Central Appalachia are being mined out, Rockefeller said, and competition from Wyoming and Illinois is intensifying. Low-priced natural gas is eating into coal's share of the electricity market, and the nation needs to take action to combat global warming, Rockefeller said.

"The shift to a lower carbon economy is not going away, and it's a disservice -- a terrible disservice -- to coal miners and their families to pretend that it is, to tell them that it is, that everything can be as it was," Rockefeller said. "That can't be. It's over.

Rockefeller said coal can -- and should -- still be part of the nation's energy mix and West Virginia's economy, but only if mine operators and society face up to dealing with its problems.

"It's not too late for the coal industry to step up and lead by embracing the realities of today and creating a sustainable future," Rockefeller said. "Discard the scare tactics. Stop denying the science. Listen to what markets are saying about greenhouse gases and other environmental concerns, to what West Virginians are saying about their water and air, their health, and the cost of caring for seniors and children who are most susceptible to pollution."

Shortly after Rockefeller's speech, Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., took to the Senate floor and said he would vote in favor of the resolution authored by Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., and made the same sorts of arguments that Rockefeller had just decried.

Manchin said he was "determined to stop the EPA's jobs-killing agenda" and "to reign in this out-of-control agency."

"West Virginians are outraged at the ways the EPA is overstepping its bound on regulation after regulation," Manchin said. "The fact is this rule will have devastating effects on our families, jobs and economy, and doesn't come close to striking a balance between the economy and the environment."

Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., issued her own statement lamenting the failure of the Senate resolution, saying "EPA will stop at nothing until it severely cripples the coal industry."

Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kward@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.


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