Sen. Jay Rockefeller's efforts in the last year to head off U.S. EPA regulation of greenhouse gas emissions from sources like coal-fired power plants have made him a target for national environmentalists while confirming his long-established position as a friend and champion of his state's coal miners.
The West Virginia Democrat has not always played this role, however. In fact, when he first ran for governor of the Mountain State in 1972, he campaigned on a platform of abolishing strip-mining -- the practice of removing large amounts of earth and rock in order to access underground seams of coal.
That stance did not endear him to the state's coal miners, or to the companies that employed them. The miners began showing up at his rallies and town hall meetings to heckle the blue-blooded secretary of state, who had arrived in West Virginia a scant seven years prior to work with Volunteers in Service to America.
The coal companies, meanwhile, offered a cash bounty to anyone who pilfered his campaign signs.
"Running against the coal companies sort of adrenalized you," Rockefeller, then 34 years old, told Time.
Reporter David Maxey wrote of riding in a truck with Rockefeller and a banjo and guitar band, while "hot behind, unentertained, was a caravan of angry strip miners.
"Wherever he went, Rockefeller had a portable crowd, waving 'Jay Go Home' signs and making good-ole boy wisecracks to each other."
Rockefeller lost that race to Republican incumbent Arch Moore, and it remains the only defeat of his 45-year political career. Several factors probably contributed to the loss, but the one that gets remembered in West Virginia is the coal issue.
"Even though it was very bad year for Democrats, the narrative in the state is that strip mining helped lose him that election," said Robert Rupp, a professor in the history and political science department at West Virginia Wesleyan University -- where Rockefeller served as president following his 1972 loss.
Rupp said that West Virginia had -- and continues to have -- a strong emotional as well as economic attachment to the coal industry. The state is poor with relatively few industries, and coal mining has been a mainstay employer for generations (a coal miner is on the state flag).
"'Jobs' is a very loaded word in West Virginia," Rupp said. "And it is loaded because our children leave the state to find jobs elsewhere."
After having been portrayed in 1972 as insensitive to mining, Rockefeller did not let that happen again. Four years later he ran as a supporter of strip mining and won the governor's mansion. And while he has supported coal mine safety legislation and other items that have not been popular with coal executives, the miners themselves have seldom had cause to complain about him since.
"I don't see why there is a focus on a position Rockefeller took 40 years ago," said Bill Banig, director of government affairs for the United Mine Workers of America, when asked about the '72 campaign. "I think it's more important to look at Rockefeller's support for coal miners throughout his career."
Banig said the union had made Rockefeller an honorary member because of his support for them over the years, an honor rarely bestowed on an elected official.
He said the mine workers fully support Rockefeller's legislative agenda on behalf of coal, including his planned reintroduction later this month of the "Stationary Source Regulations Delay Act," which would put a two-year stay on Clean Air Act permitting requirements for nonvehicle sources of CO2. Banig said the delay would help protect jobs.
"Green jobs quite frankly don't exist," he said. "By and large, if those coal jobs disappear, those are the best paying jobs in those areas."
West Virginia's environmental community takes a dimmer view of the senior senator's track record, however. Jim Sconyers, chairman of the West Virginia chapter of the Sierra Club, said Rockefeller's defeat in 1972 appears to have taught him never to stand on principle again when it comes to the environmental destruction wrought by the coal industry.
After the defeat, he said, Rockefeller, whose extended family is well-known nationally and internationally for its conservationist work, made a "180-degree turn" in his views on the environment, never to look back.
"His heart is in the pocket of big coal, there is no question about that whatsoever," Sconyers said. "He is pro-coal every day, all day, all the time."
Sconyers gave Rockefeller limited credit for supporting wilderness and public lands initiatives over the years: "That's like mom and apple pie. Who would be against that?"
But he said Rockefeller had taken coal's part on all the controversial issues of real importance to his state, especially the practice of mountaintop removal mining, in which large sections of hillside are blown off and deposited in valleys, sometimes contaminating streams.
Sconyers noted that the senator also opposes EPA's veto of a major mountaintop removal mining project in West Virginia. The agency acted last week to halt the Spruce No. 1 Mine because of concerns the giant mine would pose a risk to water quality.
Rockefeller's EPA proposal is only the latest in a long string of capitulations he has made to the coal industry during his eight years as governor and 25 years as U.S. senator, Sconyers said. He predicted that the senator's efforts to extend the life of the coal industry by disarming EPA would not only hurt efforts to cool the planet but would allow West Virginia's landscape and water quality to degrade for years to come.
"Climate change is what is going to make or break our freaking planet, and coal is one of the worst offenders," he said.
National environmentalists said they found Rockefeller to be sincere in his desire to protect coal-industry jobs and personally knowledgeable about the industry's issues.
"It is core to who he is," said one, who asked to speak on background to protect a working relationship with Rockefeller's office.
Still, Washington greens said they were disappointed with Rockefeller, not only because of what he had done in aggressively promoting his EPA bill but also for opting not to take a more active role in helping to broker a deal on climate change in the 111th Congress.
"This role was by no means a foregone conclusion," the environmentalist said.
Rockefeller has said repeatedly that climate change is happening and that human activity is contributing to it. His votes have sometimes reflected this belief, as when he voted for a cap-and-trade bill in 2003 sponsored by Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), who was then a Democrat. The bill got 43 votes and went down to defeat.
But when Democrats took power of the Senate and passage of a cap-and-trade bill appeared briefly to be within reach last year, Rockefeller hung back, meeting with Senate negotiators six times in the first part of the year but never committing to support the process. As chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, Rockefeller was one of six chairmen with partial jurisdiction over the climate bill, but in common with some other chairmen, he never held markups.
The environmentalist pointed out that Democrats from coal states played key roles in passing the House climate change bill in 2009. Former Rep. Rick Boucher (D-Va.) used his senior position on the House Energy and Commerce Committee to negotiate concessions for coal-fired electric utilities on allowance allocation and other issues, allowing the bill to clear the committee and narrowly pass the House.
"We thought Boucher did a good negotiating job in getting some of those concessions," the environmentalist said. "We thought Rockefeller would rise to the occasion and play the same role."
Some observers say that Boucher was defeated last November in part because of the role he played in crafting a compromise on climate, but Rockefeller is not up for re-election until 2014 and would have been unlikely to meet the same fate, because he is considered one of the state's most popular politicians.
A former staffer and friend of the senator said his lack of involvement in climate negotiations was motivated by practical, rather than political considerations.
"To me, I think it's a fundamental difference in strategy on how to get to the finish line," the former aide said.
Where Democrats in the House had a governing majority large enough to absorb defections from within their own ranks, Senate passage of a climate change bill was always in doubt because chamber rules required a supermajority of 60 votes for passage. Most analyses showed that the votes were not there.
"I don't think Jay Rockefeller thought we could get to the finish line with the vote count and the senators who were still lingering out there," the former aide said. "That debate just didn't go forward, and the opportunity was lost."
A politician looking ahead
The adviser said that Rockefeller is working to lay the groundwork for a future agreement, by trying to convince the coal industry that it is in its own long-term interest to improve efficiency, adopt carbon capture and storage technologies and make other adaptations that will allow it to survive in a carbon-constrained world.
"The industry itself is flat-lined, it's not growing, there isn't the opportunity for it to grow, so the industry has to change," the adviser said. "I think the industry has to be prodded to do more."
He argued that a temporary moratorium on permitting requirements for power plants would give the coal industry the time to make changes and give both industry and environmentalists a reason to compromise.
"It is, I think, a sophisticated view," he said.
The aide, who was involved in Rockefeller's unsuccessful 1972 bid for governor and his later successful campaigns, said his former boss learned from the defeat how to go about laying the groundwork for change in a state like West Virginia.
"You can say 'abolish strip mining,' or you can become governor of West Virginia and change the environmental laws of the state," the adviser said. "That was a maturing of a political view from '72 to '76, and I think he has been completely consistent since in how he has understood that fundamental relationship between coal and making progress with the environment."
Rockefeller is a direct descendant of -- and named for -- John D. Rockefeller, who founded the Standard Oil Trust, which is now known as Exxon Mobil Corp. While the original John D. Rockefeller was instrumental in the growth and development of the petroleum industry, later Rockefellers have earned reputations as conservationists and proponents for action on climate change.
Jay Rockefeller's uncle, Laurance SpelmanRockefeller, funded the expansion of the Grand Teton National Park and many others. Members of the family are still major shareholders in Exxon, and in 2008 they urged the oil giant to study the effects of climate change on poor economies as part of a shift away from high-carbon fuels.
The senator's former adviser said that Jay Rockefeller is no less committed to improving the environment than his kin.
"But Jay is the politician among them, and I use that word affectionately," he said. "Jay understands how to get the change that some of his environmental cousins may want inside a body like the United States Senate over a period of time."
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