Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D) is taking on a sacred cow in his home state of West Virginia, stepping up his criticism of the coal industry in recent interviews with various news outlets in the Mountaineer State.
The flurry of criticism has sparked speculation that Rockefeller may not seek a sixth term in 2014.
"I've just had it. I've had it," Rockefeller told West Virginia Public Broadcasting recently, referring to the industry's intense fight against Obama administration proposals to curb mine and power plant waste.
Rockefeller shocked colleagues and coal boosters with a speech last month ahead of a planned Senate vote to scrap a key U.S. EPA proposal aimed at power plant pollution (Greenwire, June 20). He says the industry is not doing enough to modernize and adjust to a changing economic climate.
"Coal company operators deny that we need to do anything to address climate change despite the established scientific consensus and mounting national desire for a cleaner, healthier environment," he said on June 20 on the Senate floor. He also accused the industry of using scare tactics to get its way.
In more recent interviews, Rockefeller expressed pride in the speech, saying the subject had been gnawing at him for years. He casts his recent and very public comments as part of a calculated approach.
"I wanted to do it on the floor of the Senate," he said on public radio. "I wanted to make it as official as possible." To The Charleston Gazette he said, "I've never felt so proud about anything in my life."
Rockefeller says the coal industry needs to recognize economic factors like competition from natural gas and depleting Appalachian coal reserves for at least some of its decline. He says he has been trying to tell executives that things like cap and trade will some day be a reality.
In the public radio interview, Rockefeller recounted a speech to industry stakeholders in which he expressed some of his concerns -- what Rockefeller calls the truth as he sees it. "They didn't like," he said. "When I finished there wasn't a single applause. No two hands met."
"All they did was to complain about EPA and Obama," Rockefeller said about a follow-up meeting. "That's all they did. Obama hates coal; we hate EPA."
Rockefeller has positioned himself as a believer in the need to deal with climate change while also wanting to boost his state's coal industry. He made a political turn in the 1970s after his opposition to strip mining contributed to his 1972 loss in his first race for governor (E&E Daily, Jan 18, 2011). He was elected governor in 1976 and moved on to the Senate eight years later.
Coal industry advocates at the National Mining Association and the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity said they were not surprised by the June speech but were disappointed. ACCCE's policy senior vice president said, "I think the way he spoke about the coal producers was a bit of a surprise to us."
Industry leaders accuse the Obama administration of being too heavy-handed and not doing enough to promote coal. They say rules are making a tough situation worse. And they don't welcome Rockefeller's candor.
But West Virginia's senior senator has gotten even more blunt since the speech.
"That head in the sand stuff. They're not leveling with their miners, which is what really bothers me, because miners have the most to lose," he said. "I really resent when they pretend to speak on behalf of coal miners. They don't."
Rockefeller echoed environmental groups in calling for a more diversified economy for West Virginia, which is heavily dependent on coal mining. "Change is hard in West Virginia," he said. "Change doesn't come easy in West Virginia."
Rockefeller appeared to fault many lawmakers, especially Republicans, and his colleagues in the state's congressional delegation for feeling the need to be on the side of coal. "I've been guilty of that myself in some cases," he told West Virginia Public Broadcasting news director Beth Vorhees. "I've had it. I've had it."
Vivian Stockman, project coordinator for the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, joined other green advocates in welcoming Rockefeller's comments. She said, "He just hit the nail in the head."
She and others compare it to the late West Virginia Sen. Robert Byrd's increased candor toward the end of his life. "I think a lot of people are very appreciative," said Stockman of Rockefeller's comments. "It's really great to have him speaking out."
Observers have wondered whether Rockefeller's comments are an indication that he is not running for re-election in 2014, when he will be 77 years old. A Public Policy Polling survey taken last October showed Rockefeller trailing Rep. Shelley Moore Capito (R) by 4 points in a hypothetical 2014 match-up.
Rockefeller sidestepped questions about his political future last night. Asked whether his comments were inviting opposition or a backlash from the coal industry, Rockefeller replied, "I would welcome that."
"I am extremely worried about the future of West Virginia," Rockefeller told E&E Daily. "And the only way I can worry about that, except in private, is to do it publicly."