THEIR VIEW: Holding on to the past denies coal's future

By The West Virginia Record | Jun 20, 2012


CHARLESTON -- Here in West Virginia, we take pride in our way of life – in our families, our communities, our jobs. That pride is well placed. Because when each of these things is intact, there's simply no way of living that rivals West Virginia's.

Every West Virginian wants a healthy family. A strong community. A good job that gives real security and the chance to do some of what we love most in our state – weekend fishing trips, kids' soccer games, family vacations.

To me, this is a way of life worth fighting for. And it's something that's certainly worth coming together – with allies from all sides – to preserve.

That's why, when faced this week with a vote in the Senate – on a Resolution of Disapproval of Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) rules on coal-fired power plants reducing mercury and air pollution – I made a decision to stand behind what we value most in West Virginia.

Some in the coal industry won't see my vote that way. But what they fail to acknowledge is that this resolution does absolutely nothing to embrace the challenge and potential of coal's future.

This is the type of narrow thinking that moves us backward – declaring that we should somehow turn back the clock, ignore the present and block the future. Instead, we must be moving swiftly forward.

The rule this vote called into question is estimated to yield enormous annual health benefits – as these pollutants are shown to have serious and long-term effects through premature deaths, heart attacks and hospitalizations, and impacts on pregnant women, babies and children.

I've always stood behind West Virginians' health, and I do so still today. Because without good health, holding down a job can be impossible. Providing for one's family can be insurmountable. And the happiness that comes with each of these things is lost.

This EPA rule – two decades in the making – also moves utility companies ahead on employing technologies that will help guarantee coal jobs well into the future. Some utilities, including some in West Virginia, already have invested in technology and are ready to comply with the rule.

But across our state, there also are smaller, older and less efficient coal-fired plants slated for closure, not because of EPA regulations alone, but – as corporate boards decided long ago and companies themselves will tell you – because they are no longer economical as compared to low-emission, cheaper natural gas plants.

I remain deeply concerned about job losses. And I believe we need not only an immediate plan for job transition opportunities, but also a renewed and collective focus on the future – on the jobs that will come with new manufacturing and next generation technology.

In West Virginia, we need allies – not adversaries. But coal operators have yet to step up as strong allies and partners ready to lead, innovate and fight for the future.

Instead of moving the conversation on coal forward, some in the industry have demanded all-or-nothing, time and again, for the ill-sighted purpose of a sound bite or flashy billboard. These efforts make no progress, they don't pursue attainable policy change, and they certainly don't create or save jobs.

Change is upon us – from finite coal reserves and aging power plants, to the rise of natural gas and the very real shift to a lower-carbon economy.

Denying these factors and insisting that the EPA alone is going to make or break coal is dishonest and futile. Feeding fears with insular views and divergent motivations will leave our communities in the dust.

West Virginians deserve better.

It was a mining community that first brought me to West Virginia – and why I made our state my lifelong home. I've been proud to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with miners time and again – for their jobs, their health care and benefits, and their safety.

I stand with them still. Because unless this industry aggressively leans into the future, West Virginia's people and communities – our treasured way of life – stand to lose the most.

I am frustrated, but I'm not giving up. I believe in the technologies that will move West Virginia forward. And I will keep pushing for smart investments that focus squarely on a long-term future for coal and jobs, while also addressing very real environmental and health concerns.

It's not too late to discard unproductive all-or-nothing approaches, look ahead to a sustainable future, and join together as the bold partners West Virginia urgently needs.

Rockefeller, a Democrat, is West Virginia's senior United States Senator.

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