Rockefeller's Passionate Plea to Coal Constituents

Ken Silverstein | Aug 19, 2012


At age 75, Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-WV, says that he’s not done yet. After dedicating his professional life to public service, he says that he has at least one more goal -- to get his coal constituents to recognize that their future depends on commercializing new technologies, not rolling back the regulatory clock.

As the state’s senior senator, he is now working to persuade coal companies and their employees of his genuine concerns about climate change and public health. He has previously warned that “burying their heads in the sand” won’t solve the issues at hand. What will, he now adds, is a dedication to investment and innovation -- the type of moxie that has put men on the moon. 

To that end, he realizes that carbon capture and sequestration is not ready for prime time but through the collective resolve of both industry and its federal partners, it can happen. “The future of coal, and frankly that of all fossil fuels, depends on technology to use energy resources more cleanly,” Rockefeller says, in a letter he sent to coal groups and environmental associations.

As part of his quest to determine if it would be possible to reduce the levels of harmful emissions from coal plants at reasonable costs and in a way that would not affect reliability, the senator asked the General Accountability Office to examine the issues. The congressional watchdog agency found that reliability would not suffer if older coal plants that are not equipped with modern pollution controls are gradually retired. It also concluded that electric rates would rise nominally in some parts of the country but as much as 13.5 percent in the south where coal is the primary fuel used to create electricity.

To deal with those repercussions, the GAO says that better monitoring and more coordination is needed among the principle overseers of coal and utilities: The Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Energy and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. Together, they have the regulatory resources to reach an optimal result, the agency found.

“Existing tools provide a foundation for mitigating many of the price and reliability implications of actions power companies may take in response to the regulations,” writes GAO. “However, these tools may not fully address all potential adverse implications in some regions, for example, some reliability challenges that arise after the compliance deadlines.”

Political Donations

Among those rules coming down EPA’s pike that the congressional watchdog agency reviewed involve cross state air pollution, mercury and coal ash. Coal producers and their utility clients have said, for example, that the mercury rules enacted last year are the most expensive regulations that they have ever faced. As such, they tried to get the U.S. Senate in the spring to nullify them. They lost.

Rockefeller used that situation to point out that the coal lobby should recognize the reality of the situation and come to the bargaining table. By spending its resources to continually fight those regulations that have long been in the queue and that have been required under the 1990 Clean Air Act, the industry is losing more than just one vote on mercury; it is losing its credibility, generally.

The coal industry has funneled almost $39 million to its friends in Congress since 1990, says The time for delays has come to an end. The time for action is now.

“Whether President Obama is president, or someone else, these standards would still be going into effect now based on the timeline provided in the Clean Air Act Amendments and as a result of lawsuits stemming from former President George W. Bush's tenure,” says Rockefeller.

Indeed, the GAO wrote in its report that most power plants will install the necessary pollution controls. The newer facilities that need upgrades and that can run for years longer will make such investments. The older ones, though, will not -- the battlefield where most of the rhetoric and money is flying. Some utilities want to keep operating those 50-year-old plants rather than invest the capital in more efficient facilities, which would be unfair to those companies that have already undertaken the expenses.

Even those utilities that have long fought for continued delays are beginning to acquiesce. That is, the newfound abundance of shale gas has forced natural gas prices down to a level where they are just as affordable as coal.

That argument should particularly resonate in Rockefeller’s home state where the U.S. Energy Information Administration says not only are Appalachian coal reserves declining but that they are also expensive relative to western coal. Coal’s future therefore rest with a re-invention of itself -- one that will keep its companies and its people prosperous for years to come.

EnergyBiz Insider has been awarded the Gold for Original Web Commentary presented by the American Society of Business Press Editors. The column is also the Winner of the 2011 Online Column category awarded by Media Industry News, MIN. Ken Silverstein has been named one of the Top Economics Journalists by Wall Street Economists.

Twitter: @Ken_Silverstein

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Coal will never be "clean" enough...

and Rockefeller knows it.