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Coal industry: Not time to speculate on Rockefeller retirement

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U.S. Sen. Jay Rockefeller's announcement that he is retiring comes just months after he made a bold statement against coal companies in West Virginia. But one coal industry representative said it's time to remember the positives of Rockefeller's career.

"It's a time to reflect on five decades of service he's given to West Virginia," said West Virginia Coal Association President Bill Raney. "There's been a lot of positive things in that, and I think everyone looks back on those and will over the next couple years. … There's been differences of opinion, clearly, most of those have been attempted to be worked out."

Jimmy Winkler, president of the Logan Coal Vendors Association, said he's glad to see Rockefeller step down from the 2014 race. While other candidates have not yet emerged, he said his organization is already throwing support behind Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, who announced she would run for the seat back in November.

"We think it's time for him to sit down," Winkler said. "He's not been positive for the coal industry in recent years. We feel like we need some new blood in there to think about our industry and our jobs. We're kind of pleased that he stepped aside and let us go about our business."

Rockefeller, a Democrat and the state's senior senator, took to the Senate floor last summer to call out coal company executives. He accused them of not pushing forward into the future of coal usage, but instead trying to move backward by supporting an effort to repeal new environmental regulations.

"… Unless this industry aggressively leans into the future, coal miners will lose the most. It's not too late for the coal industry to step up and lead by embracing the realities of today and creating a sustainable future," Rockefeller said. "We need a bold partner, innovation and major public and private investments."

At the time, coal and other mining industry groups joined Republicans in criticizing Rockefeller's stance on the coal industry. Raney said Rockefeller's speech and his vote were disappointing.

"To have policy that's emitted from bureaucracies on high that give unreasonable time tables that penalize, literally and specifically, the Appalachian states, you would hope that all of the Appalachian senators would not support that," Raney said shortly after the speech last summer. "It's a direct assault on the very areas where they are elected."

That's not say Rockefeller has never supported the coal industry. He has long been considered and advocate for coal mine safety and a champion for protecting health care benefits for miners and their families.

After Rockefeller announced his retirement, Raney said now is not the time for speculating on whether or not things would be better for the industry without Rockefeller in office.

Capito, R-W.Va., said she would campaign for Rockefeller's seat in 2014. Capito has a long record of coal industry support.

Raney would not speculate on what a Capito-held Senate seat would mean for West Virginia coal, but did say "certainly there will be a different emphasis regarding a Senate seat in West Virginia."

Reaction to Rockefeller's rally against coal operators was largely mixed. Many argued about whether or not it was anti-coal — Rockefeller himself has said he is behind coal miners, if not always the coal operators.

Rockefeller made three main points in the summer speech:

  1. "First, our coal reserves are finite and many coal-fired power plants are aging. The cheap, easy coal seams are diminishing, and production is falling — especially in the central Appalachian basin in southern West Virginia. Production is shifting to lower-cost areas such as the Illinois and Powder River basins.  The average age of the nation's 1,100-plus coal fired plants is 42.5 years, with hundreds of plants even older. These plants run less often, are less economic and the least efficient."
  2. "Second, natural gas use is on the rise. Power companies are switching to natural gas because of lower prices, cheaper construction costs, lower emissions and vast, steady supplies. Even traditional coal companies such as Consol are increasingly investing in natural gas over coal."
  3. "Third, the shift to a lower-carbon economy is not going away, and it's a disservice to coal miners and their families to pretend that it is. 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."

With the speech revolving around these elements, what bothered Raney the most was the charge that the coal industry was not working progressively to overcome its challenges.

"We'd be happy to show him what tremendous progresses have been made recently and over the last two decades. It's just unbelievable," Raney said at the time. "Since he's been governor, he's likely to not even recognize the operation, it's so substantially different."

In his announcement today, Rockefeller said one of the peak moments of his career was the passage of the 1992 Coal Act.

"I simply would not abide the injustice of an industry going back on the promise of lifetime health care for its retirees — promises going back to the deal John L. Lewis and Harry Truman made in 1946," Rockefeller said. "So the United Mine Workers and I insisted on a new law — the Coal Act — which has protected over 200,000 miners and their families to date.

"And, in so doing, we actually helped avert a nationwide coal strike."