The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

Local News

July 22, 2011

Money to Sierra Club prompts boos

An industry leader joined a union chief and political luminaries in West Virginia in a sustained chorus of boos directed Thursday at billionaire New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s hefty gift to an environmental group bent on wiping out the coal industry.

Bloomberg disclosed he handed a $50 million donation to the Sierra Club from his own pocket for use in the group’s quest to shut down coal mining the two consider an environmental hazard.

His action triggered a swift and predictable response in coal-rich West Virginia.

“The next time the lights go out, the people in New York City will all know exactly whom to blame — their mayor, Michael Bloomberg,” Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., said from his Capitol office.

Bloomberg said his gift would enable the Sierra Club to close as many as one-third of America’s oldest coal-fired power plants by 2020.

Acting Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin weighed in on the latest controversy involving the industry, calling coal “the most stable, cost-effective means of meeting the energy demands of our country and the world.”

“With the use of our natural resources here in West Virginia, our country becomes more energy-independent,” Tomblin said.

Tomblin helped break ground on the new Willow Island hydro-electric project near Saint Marys.

“The fact, however, that we are looking for other sources of energy — and developing clean coal technologies — does not mean that our country can afford to no longer use coal,” the governor said. “Coal must be a part of any realistic solution to meet our growing demand for energy.”

Given the size of the charitable gift that could be spent on hiring lawyers to challenge coal production and power plants alike, Bill Raney, president of the West Virginia Coal Association, said the industry must view Bloomberg’s threat seriously.

“It sends a terrible message to coal miners and families that depend on coal, not only in West Virginia but across this country,” Raney said. “It has provided energy to make steel and power throughout the history of this country. Now, all of a sudden, he’s made a lot of money doing something, and he wants to put it into something that sounds pretty shallow, pretty selfish.”

Raney noted the mercury hovered at 100 degrees in both New York and Washington, D.C., and was 97 in Charleston, and questioned how Bloomberg would act if the electricity suddenly stop-ped with a lack of coal.

“Let’s assume he takes all the coal generation off the grid,” he said. “If he accomplishes quickly what he wants to do, I’m wondering what he’s going to do?”

The industry has been in a  roiling feud with the Obama administration over its Environmental Protection Agency’s approach to mining permits, and Raney said coal operators must brace themselves for a well-heeled assault by the Sierra Club in a bid to stop coal plants and force others to retreat from remodeling plans.

“They’ll just be flinging grenades, is what I think,” he said. “It’s simply not fair to the people who have made a living trying to provide energy in this country. It’s just like he thumbed his nose at it. It doesn’t make a lick of sense.”

Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., found it disappointing that Bloomberg launched an attack on coal, rather than work to achieve a balance between production and environmental concerns.

“Coal not only built this country, but it built the skyscrapers of New York City, and, without coal, the lights of that city would be dark and its economy would be devastated,” the senator said.

“I have said from day one, and will say until my last breath, that there has to be a balance in our country between the environment as well as our economic and national security, which are threatened by this country’s addiction to foreign oil.”

Sen. Richard Browning, D-Wyoming, pointed to a time when the lights indeed went out in the Big Apple, in a major blackout that crippled much of the eastern seaboard.

And with one of the worst heat waves to ever paralyze much of that region now in sway, Browning said coal takes on an even more critical role in supplying the energy to keep the air conditioners humming.

“Can you imagine what it would be like today without electricity right now, as far as air conditioners go?”

If coal weren’t being burn-ed to supply energy needs, he said, those swept up in the heat would be at nature’s mercy without benefit of relief.

“That’s not the kind of leadership that I would want to set for the people I represent, to advocate something that’s going to be detrimental to their way of life,” Browning said.

Browning said he considers himself both an environmentalist and a realist.

“In today’s life, we need to make electricity, and the only feasible way to do that at this point is with coal,” the senator said. “There will come a day we can do better with coal. We’re all trying to achieve that today.”

Browning pointed to research in progress in both Pittsburgh and West Virginia University aimed at cleaning up the use of coal.

“We all want to have cleaner coal, and we’re getting there,” he said. “In the meantime, we can’t stop using it until we get an alternative.”

The Sierra Club says it has applied the brakes to more than 150 new coal-fired power plants in recent years through the use of the courts and local action.

“If we are going to get serious about reducing our carbon footprint in the United States, we have to get serious about coal,” Bloomberg said in making his announcement.

“Coal is a self-inflicted public health risk, polluting the air we breathe, adding mercury to our water and the leading cause of climate disruption.”

Republican gubernatorial nominee Bill Maloney vowed to take on Bloomberg, the Sierra Club, President Obama “and anybody else who attacks one of the pillars of our state’s economy.”

“I’m convinced that when you get elected to office, there must be some magic potion they feed you that causes you to become completely detached from reality and lose touch with regular people,” he said of Bloomberg.

“This is just another example of career politicians with half-baked ideas that would devastate our economy.”

United Mine Workers President Cecil Roberts likewise decried Bloomberg’s gift, saying that it would throw miners out of work and plunge them deeper into the throes of a recession.

In some parts of Appala-chia, the union executive said, mining jobs provide the only decent incomes that allow workers to sustain a solid, middle-class lifestyle.

Moreover, he suggested, there is a measure of hypo-crisy to the environmental cause trumpeted by groups such as the Sierra Club.

“I suspect that many of their members and supporters spend thousands of dollars every year on automobiles, computers, smart phones and other goods made in China, India and other countries, which are rapidly building economies more robust than ours by using more and more coal as their chief source of energy,” he said.

“I would also point out that China is swiftly becoming the world’s leader in developing carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology, which will meet the goal of reducing and eventually eliminating greenhouse gas emissions when commercially applied to coal-fired power plants.”

Delegate Randy Swartz-miller, D-Hancock, suggested Bloomberg not try to run for office in West Virginia because his vote total would be scant.

“That is, if he didn’t get run out of the state first,” Swartzmiller said.

“Just have to wonder if someone that rich is smart enough to know what truly powers that little switch that makes the lights come on.”

— E-mail: mannix@register-herald.com

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