By Taylor Kuykendall
Rep. Nick Rahall, Democratic incumbent for the U.S. House in the 3rd District, answered six questions posed to him by members of The Register-Herald editorial board earlier this week.
What opportunities do you see for diversifying the economy of West Virginia?
“The coal industry is our foundation, has been, is and always will be. Coal is number one. While it’s our foundation and a solid foundation, that does not mean it should be our ceiling. So, diversification we have been doing. I’ve used that, my seniority, to diversify our economy. Starting my first year, when we preserved the New River and made it a national river. That created the whitewater rafting industry. We built upon the New River by making it the backbone for the largest federally protected rivers east of the Mississippi.
“That is being used as a magnet to attract the Boy Scouts into this region, a game-changer for our economy. Tourism, maybe not the number one generator of revenues, because coal is number one, but certainly is growing. We help nurture that every step of the way. We are trying to preserve a lot of our heritage in southern West Virginia.
“With the expansion of the Marcellus Natural Gas Shale discovery and coming down further into West Virginia, we find it is coming down perhaps to Monroe County. That has the potential to help diversify our economy. We don’t want to have them fighting the coal industry, which has happened in our state Legislature and even Supreme Court decisions were issued in the past.
“Now we see geothermal in the latest reports this week may be a potential hotspot or whatever. Windmills, solar, all of our domestic sources of energy need to be explored here in West Virginia. We have a talented workforce. We have an entrepreneurial spirit, we have a faith in our area that can develop all of our domestic energy resources that God has richly blessed us with in this state. Timbering, we’ve been doing that. In any of these projects, whether it is oil and gas drilling or windmills or solar or geothermal, we have to make sure it is done in a responsible fashion. You can’t just rush headlong into it. We have a process, we have regulatory agencies which for the most part that do control these industries and that’s their proper role, to make sure they are done in a responsible and safe manner. Just as in coal mining, we have to protect our number one resource which is the coal miner.”
Will the EPA always have an adversarial relationship with West Virginia or is there room for compromise, and is climate change a real issue and what role does West Virginia play in the future of the environment?
“There’s always been an adversarial relationship with the EPA. It’s not like it just happened this year or last year or with the advent of a new administration. Some people would call it a war on coal, and as I’ve said, the war on coal is nothing new. Coal has always been under attack. About 700 years ago when it was first invented the King of England tried to outlaw the burning of coal. This is nothing new. I’ve often found myself on the defense for coal in Washington, D.C., and in the U.S. Congress. Unfortunately, it’s often like terrorist threats — when you’re successful in defeating the threat and no attack occurs, you never know the threat was there to begin with.
“I’ve been on the defensive battle for coal 34 years. Back in 1977, our first year, I helped write the Federal Surface Mining Reclamation Act that now comes under the jurisdiction of the committee I chair, the Committee on Natural Resources. I defended, it was called strip mining in those days, now it’s called MTR, or mountaintop removal. I defended that practice and allowed it to continue when the hardcore enviros, environmentalists, wanted to abolish the practice back in 1977. Nothing new, we are under attack today. It’s trying to be abolished by certain groups.
“It’s perceived as a dirty fuel, yeah. Other fossil fuel industries like oil and gas have attacked coal using the name of some environmental coalition. That’s a proven fact. I went to the Florida House of Representatives and attacked the oil and gas industry for attacking coal as a dirty fuel and trying to make it look like it was some environmental group behind the attacks. Remember the (ads) with little girls with dirty faces, paid for by some environmental coalition? It was paid for by the oil and gas industry. Coal is always under attack.
“The bill to abolish valley fills, making them illegal, which in essence abolishes mountaintop removal and even regular deep mining. That bill has over 200 co-sponsors on it in the House of Representatives. ... That hits at deep mining as well. That bill is not going anywhere because it has two avenues to get through the House of Representatives. One is to amend the federal surface mining law I mentioned earlier. That bill has to go through my committee, I chair that committee. It ain’t going to happen. The other avenue is to amend the Clean Water Act. That bill has to go through the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. I’m vice chairman, while the chairman is for the bill, he’s not going to bring it up as a favor to me, so it ain’t going to come up. I’m gone, those who claim I’m anti-coal, ask them what’s going to happen. The bill will go through the House of Representatives 400 to 20 at the best. There are only three districts where MTR is a big issue and done prevalently. ... Most all of it is done in my district. To other members of the Congress across the country, Republicans included, if the vote were allowed to get to the House, which it’s not because of me, would be a freebie for them to throw to environmentalists. That’s why it would pass overwhelmingly.
“Global climate change — let’s not forget it was John McCain and Hillary Clinton that were the main sponsors of climate change legislation in the United States Senate prior to their running for president. It was John McCain who said he wanted to abolish mountaintop removal mining and it was Hillary Clinton for four consecutive years in the Senate who co-sponsored cap and trade legislation much worse than anything we’ve considered in the House of Representatives. My opponent attacks me for endorsing Obama, but ask him, he was in the Democratic Party then, who would he be endorsing in the primary? Obama is from a coal state. He co-sponsored coal to liquid legislation with Jim Bunting from Kentucky. He had coal industry backing when he ran for the United States Senate. That’s what I was looking at when I made that endorsement.
“Climate change, you know science is an idiotic practice. You can take scientists’ facts and figures, and I’m not a scientist, and use them any way you want. The fact of the matter is that the whole world today and the country is looking that there is climate change and it needs to be addressed. Otherwise, why would responsible coal operators from West Virginia be in my office on a regular basis during consideration of the legislation in the Congress trying to make it workable for our coal industry. Because they are feeling pressure from their stockholders. Their stockholders believe the issue is real. Their stockholders want to see that their investments in the coal industry are going to make coal cleaner.
“Climate change — to deny it exists, to just put your head in the sand and, ‘oh no, it doesn’t exist, what are you talking about,’ is about like standing on the floor of Macy’s during the month of December and claiming Santa Claus doesn’t exist. Come on, get real. There are responsible coal operators who work with us and continue to work with us, not only on climate change, but safety is another example.”
If you had to cut one federal program or agency, which one would it be? Why?
“I’m sure there are some that have squandered their original mandate. I would not as my opponent has advocated abolish the Department of Education or funding for education. Certainly I would not do that. You know, the EPA has its faults and would come closest to receiving my vote. However, I think we’re all environmentalists. We want clean air, we want clean water for our children. We want a clean environment to raise our children here in West Virginia and our grandchildren. For the most part, the laws that we have passed over the decades have served useful purposes. That’s why we get undercut in foreign competition because other countries don’t have those health laws, safety laws and environmental laws and they’re subsidized by their government so they undercut us in the world marketplace.
“I think most of the agencies serve a purpose and a useful purpose. The Veterans Administration, a very good agency and has helped our veterans. We gave them the largest single increase in veterans funding in its history.
“Going back to climate change just a minute, in the global marketplace in order to make coal competitive with those other domestic fuels that are always attacking it, to ensure a future for coal, we can’t put our heads under the blanket and pretend climate change doesn’t exist or we’re hurting coal.
“I think every agency needs oversight and scrutiny by the Congress. No matter what agency. The EPA would come closest to getting my vote for abolition. I’ve tried to work with them, there’s no question about it. I’ve been successful with them on the Patriot permit on the border there of Lincoln and Logan County, a couple of permits in Mingo County. And a couple more close to success, but that’s not enough progress for me. I’ve had it with them. I’ve said that before. I’ve joined in legislation to stop their funding until they involve public input more and take into account job losses in their decisions.
“I’m a realist. You’re not going to abolish (the EPA). If I said pick out an agency today, the fact is that it will have its strong backers somewhere in Congress and in the American public.”
The Federal Highway Trust Fund is broke and funding is limited at both the federal and state level. How we do move forward in the future to ensure we can build and maintain new roads and bridges and maintain the ones we already have?
“We are operating under temporary extension of the Federal Aid to Transportation bill because we didn’t pass the six-year bill a year ago. The temporary extension expires at the end of this calendar year. We’ll have to take action in a lame duck. The president has proposed $50 billion for infrastructure, transportation needs. It’s just a drop in the bucket of what’s really needed.
“How do we pay for (roads and bridges)? The Highway Trust Fund is broke because we’ve been preaching conservation and alternative means of transportation. It’s a darned if you do, darned if you don’t scenario. Less revenue is coming into the Highway Trust Fund. I have said before ... I think all options should be on the table. There’s already tolling that is going to be in place on Route 35, not in my district, that’s one avenue that has to be on the table. We have to look at public/private partnerships. We have to look at perhaps more bonding allowed to build our roads. We just have to look at all of these avenues to pursue.
“In the past the Legislature has taken the courageous move of raising the state tax. That helped us leverage more federal dollars, especially when Sen. Byrd was chairman of the Appropriations Committee. His loss is a tremendous blow to our state, 58 years of seniority there. When we do this new bill, I’m going to make sure, as I have in the past and Sen. Byrd has done in the past, that West Virginia, because it is so expensive to build a mile of highway here versus a flat state like Florida or out west — $24, $25 million dollars per mile versus a million in another state. I’m going to make sure West Virginia gets its fair share. I’m going to use the earmarking process. I don’t shy away from that word at all. I’ve gotten earmarks for the Coalfields Expressway, King Coal Highway, Shawnee Parkway, I’ve gotten earmarks for water and sewer systems across the southern part of the state. As long as those earmarks are transparent, open and no single individual personally profits, and as long as they have local support as they do, grassroots support, I’m going to fight for earmarks. I’m also going to ensure West Virginia gets its fair share.”
Historically, West Virginia politicians have often brought money to the state in the form of earmarks in the federal budget. Do you support the practice of earmarking federal funds?
“To get around that earmarking process, presidents, including the current one, have preached the line-item veto so they can go through and ‘X’ out for political reasons, cost reasons, whatever, projects that the president doesn’t feel deserve funding. Sen. Byrd preached against the line-item veto and I’m against the line-item veto because I think a member of Congress knows what’s best for his or her district.
“As long as they’re transparent, have local support, then I believe there is a role for earmarking. It’s a small percentage of our overall budget and every one of mine has been transparent, so I support that process.”
If elected and there was one thing you could do for West Virginia, what would it be?
“Jobs for our people. The second item would be more jobs. The third would be even more jobs. That’s number one. I believe by supporting infrastructure, by supporting the stimulus bill as I did — the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, we see the signs along the road where we have roads being repaired, that’s how they are funded. Health centers get money through the stimulus bill. Hospitals are getting money to improve their health care technologies. We have airports. We have National Guard armories. Broadband technologies are coming to this state because of stimulus funding and more is yet to be done. There is money for carbon capture and sequestration in that stimulus bill. There is still money to be spent and we have the potential to get more here in southern West Virginia. The Beckley bypass, the Z-Way — stimulus money.
“My opponent attacked that bill — I disagree vehemently. Whatever ad he has about windmills in China, that project never went through. It’s something in Texas that I’m not even sure what it was, but it never went through.
“I think by investing in our infrastructure and investing in our future and investing in jobs ... One of the projects I am proud of that I authored is the Southern West Virginia Environmental and Infrastructure program set up through the Corps of Engineers. Over the years, I have appropriated, not authorized, $30 million. We need more, yes. This has been going to the things like the Mercer/Summers water project, water and sewage projects across the southern part of the state in just about every county.
“Businesses aren’t going to come into an area if the basic water and sewage isn’t there or they can’t get in because the road system is not there. That’s a fact, so we need to invest in those areas and in education. Education is something that affects both employer and employee when they look to move into an area.”
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