W. Va. ponders its mining future amid hills and valleys of climate debate

DANVILLE, W.Va. -- On a sunny Tuesday afternoon in March, the residents of this hilly town are spending another day living off coal.

Fred Byrnside, the local hardware store owner, is selling equipment to coal workers wearing heavy boots covered in soot. He estimates 75 percent of his business comes from miners and their families buying everything from hammers to hats.

Over at the Park Avenue Restaurant and Motel, owner Phyllis Weaver says three-fourths of her income comes from renting out rooms to relatives of miners and contractors working at the nearby Patriot Coal mines.

And down the street in adjacent Madison, W.Va, 70-year-old Tony Young flips grilled-cheese sandwiches for miners at the West Madison Grocery. The sound of railroad cars hauling coal periodically interrupts the sound of sizzling grease. Young says he would shut down if surrounding mines disappeared.

"You couldn't survive in Boone County without coal. There's nothing else. You've got McDonald's. But it would be gone, too, without the miners to eat there," Young says.

Survival is very much on the mind of West Virginia's coal-dependent population these days. As Congress mulls climate legislation, there is a palpable fear in the state that a bill could kill thousands of jobs unless scientists find a proven way to capture and pump carbon dioxide from coal-fired power plants underground.

That concern reaches into the halls of the state Capitol, where the Legislature voted overwhelmingly this year to condemn federal cap-and-trade legislation. Democratic Gov. Joe Manchin, who pushed that resolution, also recently signed onto a letter with other governors criticizing U.S. EPA's plans to move forward with regulation of greenhouse gases.


"Coal has been an energy that's basically domestic, that's affordable and reliable and dependable. Until we find the next clean fuel of the future that does everything that coal does 24/7, let's not destroy what has brought us to where we are," Manchin told ClimateWire.

The state's two U.S. senators, Democrats Jay Rockefeller and Robert Byrd, must balance this ground-up pressure against a push from party leaders on Capitol Hill who want a cap-and-trade bill. The two lawmakers are moderates who could make or break the outcome of global warming legislation if it reaches the Senate floor.

Both have said they are open to the idea of a cap on emissions. But they also know that in counties like Boone, coal pays for the upkeep of government buildings and the operation of schools. The industry also gains loyal followers by sponsoring sports teams and paying for health clinics.

A race for time and carbon capture technology

Because coal produces more greenhouse gases than any other fuel, there is worry here that the state -- which according to the U.S. Census Bureau has the fifth-highest poverty rate in the nation -- could be hit hard under any emissions cap.

Advocates for cap and trade argue that the state's most profitable coal seams are running out and that a federal bill will help West Virginia by forcing it to face an inevitable reality sooner rather than later.

"Cap and trade isn't law, and yet a staggering amount of jobs have somehow been wiped out in the coal industry in recent decades," said Joe Romm of the Center for American Progress. "West Virginia coal production peaked years ago. We're not making any more coal, and so anybody interested in the future of West Virginia and jobs in West Virginia has to be looking past coal."

Environmentalists also argue that coal is dangerous and dirty. Yesterday, an explosion in an underground mine run by Massey Energy 30 miles south of Charleston left at least seven miners dead, according to news reports.

In the heart of Boone County, where a large sign proclaiming "Gateway to the Coalfields" welcomes visitors to the county seat, the residents are intimately tied to the black rock beneath the earth's surface. Like residents in dozens of small towns sprinkled throughout the state, the 3,000 people living in Danville and Madison depend on coal industry taxes to fund their way of life.

The state as a whole receives $676 million, or about 18 percent, of its general revenue from such taxes, according to a 2010 report from West Virginia and Marshall universities. The study states that the loss of property tax revenue from coal companies alone would be "fatal to local governments."

West Virginia employs some 63,000 people directly in the mining industry or in jobs involved with processing, transporting or burning the fossil fuel.

That figure doesn't include thousands of jobs tied to coal in less obvious ways. In addition to the restaurant and hotel owners of Boone County, tour guides sell tickets to exhibition coal mines and museums, hotel owners depend on travelers to coal-company meetings at the Charleston convention center, and businesses sell animal figurines made out of West Virginia coal at gift shops.

A steady stream of barges on the Kanawha River south of Charleston haul large piles for burning in power plants as railroad cars shoot past moon-like mounds of coal by the highway.

In this climate, many West Virginians see themselves in a race for time. Technology to capture carbon dioxide at coal-fired plants is yet to be proven on a large scale, and may not be for many years.

In the meantime, there are attempts to build wind farms and bring in new jobs. But coal's hold on the state's social and political fabric is strong.

This is a place, after all, where the Charleston Town Center displays "Legalize Coal" T-shirts across from a toy store selling plastic mining hats for 5-year-olds.

Miners 'stuck in the middle'

At a recent meeting of the United Mine Workers of America Coal Miners Political Action Committee in Charleston, the link between the coal community and the state's Capitol dome was obvious.

Mike Caputo, the majority whip of the West Virginia House of Delegates, stirred up the crowd of more than a hundred West Virginia miners there to endorse candidates for state offices. Some correspond frequently with staffers for the state's two U.S. senators, and during that same week, Rockefeller met privately with a group of miners in Morgantown, W.Va.

"No matter how aggravated you might be, you have friends who will protect you!" Caputo told the crowd.

Many of the miners say their aggravation stems from fears about global warming legislation. Jerry Brown, 51, spoke proudly about sending two children to college on a coal miner's salary. A typical miner in West Virginia makes $62,700, an amount well above the state average, according to the West Virginia Coal Association.

He said he worries something will happen before he makes it to 55, when he can get company medical benefits available to unionized miners working in one place for at least 10 years.

"I've never had to stand in an unemployment line my whole life," he said. "Coal miners are stuck in the middle right now. We don't know if we're going to be working next month or next week."

Ronald Pauley, also 51, said he could live with a national cap on emissions if it provided enough money to deploy and develop the so-called clean coal technology that would let the state's coal industry continue operating at full throttle.

Rockefeller, who wants to see funding for CCS projects in any climate bill, makes the same argument. The technology, which is years away from commercialization, envisions grabbing carbon dioxide from coal plants and storing the gas in deep aquifers more than a mile beneath the earth's surface.

"I have to have a bill for coal to survive," he said. "If you don't do anything, natural gas eats coal alive." Natural gas emits half the greenhouse gases of coal.

The problem is that no one knows how much funding will be needed to get carbon capture and sequestration working at scale or whether it's technologically feasible at all.

West Virginia is home to the nation's first attempt to capture carbon dioxide from a large, existing coal plant and store it underground. But there are ongoing questions about whether that project, run by utility giant American Electric Power at its Mountaineer plant, will work when engineers try to capture more than just a small portion of the CO2 from the plant's emissions.

Currently, the plant is capturing less than 2 percent of the gas in its test. No one knows what will happen when the company tries to move the percentage to 20 percent, much less 100 percent. It's the same "what if" looming over other planned CCS initiatives in other parts of the country.

Looking for new opportunities

For that reason, environmentalists like West Virginia Environmental Council President Danny Chiotos say the state is heading down the wrong path by counting on the emergence of clean coal. He called it "absurd" that a state mandate enacted in 2009 requiring utilities to supply a portion of electricity from "alternative and renewable energy resources" includes CCS as an eligible source of power.

Like many clean-energy advocates in the state, Chiotos is skeptical of the idea of setting up a gigantic carbon trading platform. Cap and trade would restrict emissions and require capped entities to buy and sell a limited number of allowances to meet required cuts.

Instead, green groups in West Virginia are focused on promoting renewable energy and banning mountaintop-removal mining, in which companies blast the summits of mountains with explosives to extract coal. Environmentalists decry the practice as a disaster for surrounding waterways and landscapes. Many are advocating incentives for clean-energy businesses that would generate jobs locally, as well as a federal GI Bill for miners -- an idea once touted by former Vice President Al Gore.

In the meantime, there is no shortage of ideas on how to diversify the state's economy. House of Delegates member Barbara Fleischauer (D) got a "study resolution" passed this year in West Virginia's Legislature that would examine the best way to implement tax breaks and job training programs to bring in new businesses. She says that health care and tourism are two areas ripe for growth, considering the state's natural white-water rafting and skiing potential.

"It's really dangerous if a transition doesn't happen," she said. "Anytime you have your emphasis on one commodity, you are at economic risk." The influence of the coal industry in the state Legislature is "enormous," she said.

Some are betting on finds of natural gas in the Marcellus Shale -- which extends through a huge swath of West Virginia -- to provide a gusher of new opportunities for the state. But it is not without controversy, either. There are concerns about the amount of water needed to extract natural gas from the ground, among other things.

A January 2010 report from environmental consulting firm Downstream Strategies offered a range of suggestions for West Virginia and other Appalachian states, including promoting reforestation efforts at abandoned mines and providing incentives for wind and biomass development.

The central Appalachia region could generate a total of 52,000 new jobs in the renewable energy manufacturing sectors for wind, solar, and biomass, according to the study.

When asked whether he would be willing to put more subsidies in place for wind, Manchin said, "Why should it be subsidized? Do you really think wind can serve as baseload power?"

'I want my paycheck'

Many experts remain pessimistic about the state's economic future.

Appalachia's remaining coal reserves are more expensive to extract than those of the past, said David Victor, a professor at the University of California, San Diego.

That has caused companies to increasingly turn to mountaintop removal as the mining method of choice because it removes coal cheaply, even though the Obama administration increasingly is blocking permits for the practice. This month, U.S. EPA denied a permit for the Spruce No. 1 Mine slated for operation by Arch Coal.

The combination of declining reserves and increased regulations means that the state's coal industry could be facing a major economic hit before climate legislation is ever signed into law, Chiotos said. The last time the state's coal industry disappeared in some counties because of a natural bust cycle, it spurred a wave of poverty and mass migration out of Southern cities.

Furthermore, much of West Virginia's industry has historically been rural, while the industries of the future tend to be urban and knowledge-based, Victor said.

"West Virginia has difficult geography which makes transport challenging, and that usually means that development is difficult," he said. "It is landlocked, and rarely do landlocked geographies do well."

Back in Boone, there is strong opposition to change. Weaver of the Park Avenue Restaurant and Motel calls wind turbines ugly. She says she is angry that people oppose mountaintop-removal mining and "take coal jobs away" but don't complain when trees are cleared to build shopping malls.

Like others in the county, Madison grocer Young and miner Brown express a sentiment of disbelief in the science behind global warming, especially after a year of record snowfalls.

More than anything, though, a sense of "Leave us alone" drips into the commentary when locals here are asked about plans to curb global warming.

"The bottom line is this: Am I going to be able to go to work and put food on the table?" said Brown. "Or am I going to lose my job because of some scientist or Al Gore who runs around with his band of gypsies preaching the global warming thing?

"I'm sorry, I want my paycheck."

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