West Virginia legislators say anti-coal rhetoric not helping

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — West Virginia's top legislative leaders aren't sure clamoring over coal this election season does much good for Appalachia's already-sputtering industry.

In the Mountain State, federal campaigns have hammered on the fear of federal regulation further stifling coal.

Hopefuls for an open Senate seat and two competitive House races have recited the same conversation: Republicans lump Democrats in with President Obama, an ever-unpopular figure in West Virginia. Democrats zigzag to show they don't support his energy ideas.

It's a simplified dialogue that ignores the larger forces determining Appalachian coal's future, said state House Speaker Tim Miley and Senate President Jeff Kessler.

Natural gas is cheap and plentiful, coal seams have thinned out, domestic and international coal markets are lousy and other states and countries provide stiff competition.

"I wish (federal candidates) would talk more about how we are going to diversify our economy, because I don't know whether coal is ever coming back," Miley, a Harrison County Democrat, said Sept. 5 on the Viewpoint radio show in West Virginia.

This election season, it's been a bipartisan rite of passage to blast Obama and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Successful politicos have shown little wiggle room on a proposal to limit carbon emissions from coal-fired power plants, which is central to Obama's anti-global warming push. Major federal candidates all deem it an attack on West Virginia coal mining, which has shed thousands of jobs in just a few years.

Candidates have politicized warnings about potential layoffs, like Alpha Natural Resources' plan to lay off 1,100 southern coalfield workers next month. After Patriot Coal announced 360 possible West Virginia layoffs Tuesday, 2nd Congressional District Republican candidate Alex Mooney told Democrat Nick Casey to apologize to every miner laid off during Obama's tenure. Coal mining jobs rose nationally from 2010 to 2011 under Obama's presidency before dropping.

Kessler, a Marshall County Democrat, called the political season's almost-singular focus counterproductive. He added that he doesn't "have his head in the sand about global warming."

"I wish political rhetoric could turn back the clock. It's not going to happen," Kessler told The Associated Press. "Just because (coal is) all we know doesn't mean it's all there is."

Miley and Kessler aren't writing off coal completely, and want additional research into burning coal more cleanly. But they say the fossil fuel industry is becoming a shadow of what it once was, a trend that has been forecast for years.

Some of West Virginia's longest-tenured politicians offered similar words of caution near the end of their careers.

In one of his last major speeches in 2009, Sen. Robert Byrd chastised the industry for "scapegoating and stoking fear," calling it counterproductive. He died the next year after five decades in the Senate.

"To be part of any solution," he said, "one must first acknowledge the problem."

In 2012, Democratic Sen. Jay Rockefeller vented his frustrations. He's slated to retire after almost three decades in office.

"Scare tactics are a cynical waste of time, money and worst of all coal miners' hopes," Rockefeller said in the 2012 Senate floor speech. "But sadly, these coal operators have closed themselves off from any other opposing voices and few dared to speak out for change — even though it's been staring them in the face for years."

Miley and Kessler have a unique vantage point to see beyond coal. Both hail from the northern section of the state, which is reaping the benefits of natural gas extraction. The cheaper energy source is a boon for West Virginia, boosting jobs and about doubling its state severance tax intake in the last year.

At the same time, natural gas makes it tough for coal to compete at a macroeconomic level.

The two statehouse leaders also aren't feeling the heat of a contentious election year. Kessler isn't up for re-election. Miley is a heavy favorite to keep his seat, though his party risks losing the majority to Republicans for the first time in 85 years. A four-seat swing would flip the House.

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