THEIR VIEW: A strong future for W.Va.

By The West Virginia Record | Nov 17, 2010


WASHINGTON, D.C. -- When I first came to West Virginia more than 40 years ago, it was to work with coal miners and their families.

Good people who worked hard and risked their lives so that the rest of America could turn the lights on and build a strong economy.

Good people who counted on their jobs to put food on the table, build a home, send their kids to school, and save a little for retirement.

Coal mining is our heritage in West Virginia –- just as important now as it was then, and just as fundamental to the future of our country.

I have spent my career fighting for coal miners all across our state -– for their safety, their health care, their retirement, their jobs. We've been on the front lines of some pretty tough fights together. But with a lot of determination, a focus on practical solutions, and a willingness to engage head-on those who oppose us, we have prevailed.

I believe we will prevail again.

We have to. Not only for our coal miners, but for our country. Coal is an essential part of America's energy future. It is absolutely irreplaceable as the energy source for half of our nation's electricity. And it is the single greatest hope our country has of ever achieving energy independence in a dangerous world. The energy content of the U.S. coal reserves exceeds the energy of all the world's oil reserves combined.

But coal faces enormous challenges, and not just from the energy policies in Washington we hear so much about. The most immediate threats to coal are happening right now –- declining demand, increased competition from other energy sources, environmental impacts, and technology delays.

Every industry leader I talk with -- coal producers and coal consumers -- tells me that coal is being stalled first and foremost by wary investors. Uncertainty is hindering investment in new coal projects and constraining coal's great potential as a future energy source here and around the world.

State and local governments are acting similarly. Twenty-three states, individually and as regional entities, are already stepping in to regulate carbon, and are creating a patchwork of conflicting laws around the country that further discourage coal use and investments.

At the federal level, coal emissions are facing direct mandatory EPA regulation, as decided by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2007, and there are a disturbing number of Republicans and Democrats in Congress who oppose surface mining altogether.

These forces threaten to permanently undermine coal's promise. An economic turnaround alone won't ease the uncertainty that investors feel.

As I see it, we in West Virginia need to use every tool at our disposal to fight these trends, and turn them around. Whether or not we all agree, the consensus in this country about climate change and greenhouse emissions is settled. And the opportunities always follow the consensus, which means every day we spend fighting with each other about the underlying science is a day we are not fighting together to secure our future.

We need solutions -– solutions that stabilize investments in coal, prohibit states and localities from imposing haphazard regulations, prevent excessive EPA regulation, protect consumers, and dramatically speed up the development of new technology -- especially technology to capture and store the carbon that comes from burning coal and other fossil fuels.

I haven't yet seen federal energy legislation that achieves these goals and protects our way of life, and I won't support any bill that threatens coal or West Virginia's future.

I will demand a place at the table, and I will be a lead advocate for coal's future.

I have a formal role as chairman of the Senate committee responsible for science and technology and as a member of the Senate committee that crafts energy tax incentives, including many for clean coal. I also am part of a block of coal and heavy manufacturing state Senators pushing together for a bill that protects our people and our states' economies.

My core principles for energy reform are long-held, and focused on our people:

First and foremost, the United States must recognize and embrace coal as an essential part of our nation's energy future.

Second, we must safeguard American energy and manufacturing jobs.

Third, we must defend the US economy against unfair competition from nations like China and India and make sure our trade-exposed manufacturers are never put at a disadvantage.

Fourth, we must protect working families from rising energy costs at home.

Fifth, we must invest aggressively in new and existing technologies – including but not limited to carbon capture and storage—to make coal cleaner and establish U.S. energy dominance.

Sixth, we must insist that efforts to address greenhouse gas emissions give our economy and our industries the time that's needed to develop and implement these new technologies.

Seventh, legislation must be the final word, prohibiting the EPA from going beyond statutory requirements on coal plants.

America today is engaged in an enormously important discussion about our energy future. As Congress looks ahead and sets our national priorities, I won't let anyone forget that coal has given the American people the highest standard of living in the world.

Coal continues to hold tremendous promise for our future, but to get there we have to make our case. West Virginia is up to the task, and so am I.

Unless a clear and achievable path forward for coal is laid out, our coal heritage and coal jobs are at risk of being left behind. Instead, we must defend our way of life, and make sure that if a plan does become law, it actually works for West Virginia and invests in coal.

Rockefeller is West Virginia's senior U.S. senator.

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