The Latest Reality Check for Coal: A Surprising Message from West Virginia

October 28, 2015 | 3:40 pm
Jeremy Richardson
Former Contributor

A news story posted yesterday in the Charleston Gazette-Mail hit my inbox at least five times this morning. The article acknowledges something we’ve been talking about for quite some time—the reality that the coal industry is simply not going to return to its heyday of years past.

What’s surprising about the piece is not the message—it’s the source. The person making this point was the president of West Virginia’s largest electric utility. It reminded me of my King Coal’s Stages of Grief series from earlier this summer, and led me to wonder, have we finally reached the acceptance phase?

Strong dose of reality

Charles Patton, the president of Appalachian Power, was speaking at the West Virginia Governor’s Energy Summit held this week at Stonewall Jackson Resort. Mr. Patton pointed out, as he has previously, that his company won’t be building any new coal plants for the foreseeable future, simply because they are more expensive than natural gas plants and even wind turbines.

While he stressed his opposition to the Clean Power Plan, which sets the first ever limits on carbon dioxide emissions from existing power plants, and says he supports the lawsuits challenging it (led by West Virginia), Patton recognizes an important reality:

“With or without the Clean Power Plan, the economics of alternatives to fossil-based fuels are making inroads in the utility plan. … Companies are already making decisions today where they are moving away from coal-fired generation.”

Read that again for emphasis. The president of a coal-heavy utility in a coal-heavy state recognizes that the times they are a-changing.

The Mount Storm Power Plant

West Virginia’s Mount Storm Power Plant. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Blaming cheaper alternatives and environmental regulations already imposed, Patton said Appalachian Power expects its coal consumption to be down by 26 percent by 2026—regardless of what happens with the Clean Power Plan.

Practical trumps political

West Virginia continues to lead the legal challenges to the Clean Power Plan, supported by 23 states. But even here in the heart of coal country, where “EPA” might as well be a four-letter word, practical considerations are beginning to take hold over political grandstanding.

West Virginia’s governor, Earl Ray Tomblin, told attendees at the Energy Summit that he intends to submit a plan for West Virginia to comply with its carbon reduction targets under the Clean Power Plan. Governor Tomblin has rejected Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s call for states to “just say no” and refuse to submit compliance plans. The governor instead recognizes that refusing to submit a plan means that West Virginia would risk getting stuck with the one-size-fits-all Federal Implementation Plan.

Low-carbon future on the way

Also speaking at the summit was the president of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA), Cecil Roberts. The UMWA is also a party to the lawsuit challenging the Clean Power Plan. But Roberts, too, said that he doesn’t think “just say no” is a viable strategy for West Virginia, and he believes it’s time to look toward the future.

Reading through his written remarks as prepared, I was struck by what he said at the end:

“Here is the truth that many don’t want to think about: The next administration, of whichever party, will be still be bound by the Supreme Court’s 2007 decision that says the Clean Air Act gives EPA authority to regulate carbon emissions. And the Court has rejected appeals of EPA’s so-called ‘endangerment finding,’ which has put us on the course of regulating greenhouse gases.

“Different administrations may take different approaches to implementing the Clean Air Act, but no administration can just ignore it. People can try to score all the political points they want, but the fact is that we are facing a lower-carbon future no matter which party is in control of the White House or Congress. It’s really just a question of how fast we go.”

Patton struck a similar tone in his remarks, noting that nearly two-thrids of Americans favor stricter limits on greenhouse gas emissions, with even greater support among young people. He suggested that the debate around what to do about climate change “largely … has been lost.”

A welcome shift

I was actually heartened to read these statements by folks who continue to defend the coal industry. And while we may disagree about what that future might or should look like, I think that facing that low-carbon future with a clear eye is a critical first step.

I would have liked to hear, particularly from Governor Tomblin, about the importance of diversifying the economy in a place like West Virginia. But fortunately, the conversation has already begun to shift on the local level.

Recently, local governments in Lincoln, Fayette, and Wyoming counties in southern West Virginia have approved resolutions in support of the POWER Plus plan, designed to invest in economic development in coal-heavy regions of Appalachia. The Obama administration recently announced initial grants as a down payment on that future funding yet to be approved by Congress.

It will be a great day when our statewide officials and our Congressional delegation in Washington catch up.