Why coal (money) matters

Coal industry contributions keep paying off

A recent editorial by State Senator Ben Chafin in support of coal power lead us to revisit his arguments for coal yet again. Sen. Chafin’s hands are as dirty as the coal he advocates for.

Senator Chafin wonders if the state “appreciates the continuing importance of the coal industry.” We wonder if the Senator understands the inevitable decline of coal as a fuel source. He notes coal provides 20 percent of utility generation in the state and provides 2000 direct jobs and more supporting ones, and claims that coal is needed for energy independence. Is anything more independent that the ability to power your home or business with the sun falling on your roof? Maybe it’s because it frees Virginia consumers from feeding the profits of the energy sector?

Chafin points to the results of a poll that suggests that American voters approve of the use of coal as an energy source 54%–46%. This 8-point majority in a poll whose “interviews were conducted online” — Internet-only polls are not scientific — is further discounted by the fact that the poll was bought and paid for by a so-called “clean coal” advocacy group of coal producers, utility companies and railroads: the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity.

In 2009, the ACCCE was involved in what The Washington Post described as a “saga of modern Washington, in which an ‘American coalition’ [the ACCCE] claiming 200,000 supporters still relies on a subcontractor to gin up favorable letters.” In this case, the ACCCE had subcontracted a DC lobbying firm to generate ‘grassroots’ opposition to the American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009 (ACES), also known as the Waxman-Markey Climate bill. The bill itself was aimed at creating clean energy jobs, lowering consumer energy costs, increasing U.S. energy independence, and cutting carbon emissions. It passed the House with bipartisan support, but it stalled in the Senate following Sen. Ted Kennedy’s death. ACCCE’s “grassroots” opposition to this bill consisted of a temp worker who sent a series of forged letters to lawmakers, purported to come from a Latino advocacy group and NAACP members in their districts.

And the NERA study that he quotes later in the article, the one which finds Virginian consumers will pay more for electricity if the Clean Power Plan is implemented? Paid for by ACCCE and other mining, railroad and mining organizations. ACCCE’s members include coal producer Alpha Natural Resources, which we covered in detail previously as a major Chafin donor and one of the recipients of the Virginia state tax subsidies Chafin mentions. Originally intended to spur job growth in the coal industry, the subsidies have cost the state $610 million in lost tax revenues since 1998… while more than 8000 mining jobs have been lost. In fact, Alpha itself laid off 4000 workers, tried to drop their benefits after filing for bankruptcy, then sought approval earlier this year for $12 million dollars in executive performance bonuses. Senator Chafin touts his accomplishment in getting these tax subsidies renewed in the General Assembly under the guise that it would save jobs in the industry, but even a 2012 General Assembly audit board found that the subsidies, which were intended to promote coal production and employment, were ineffective at achieving their desired goal, noting that “changes in coal mining activity appear unaffected by the credits.”

Briefly, on the Clean Power Plan, Chafin’s arguments about the uncertainty and lawsuits surrounding the CPP fail to note two things: One, the law is being challenged by the coal industry, and two, the ongoing GOP fight against President Obama’s Supreme Court nomination make it more likely that the law will be upheld. Then there’s Dominion’s about-face on the CPP due to its ongoing investments in natural gas, which will further undercut coal’s role in producing energy for Virginia.

Chafin claims that coal and other “traditional” energy sources are cheaper and more reliable than renewable energy. And as of this moment, he’s not entirely wrong on all of that: Advances in weather forecasting, dynamic grids and the use of other power sources, such as natural gas plants, will allow us to effectively manage renewable power generation, but they’re not ready yet. On cost, however, he is wrong: Wind power is currently competitive and solar will be soon.

Chafin also ignores the environmental cost of pollution. Black lung disease, air pollution and coal ash spills: These are the externalities of coal activities, costs that are offloaded from the coal industry onto the Virginia taxpayers. And with the ongoing industry bankruptcies, coal companies are reneging on their commitments to clean up after themselves, or to take care of their employees. Senator Chafin’s donors Alpha Natural Resources and other coal companies across the country outsource their clean up efforts to third parties. and once bankrupt, those costs will be forced onto the State to clean it up. Likewise, the employee pensions erased in bankruptcy court will force retirees to seek additional welfare services from the State and Federal Government.

As the National Resources Defense Council’s Land and Wildlife Program director Sharon Buccino told the Washington Post, “we should not have to sacrifice the health of the land and its residents to the financial health of coal companies.” We shouldn’t have to, but thanks to the $137,000 the coal industry has given his campaign since 2013, Senator Chafin will probably keep telling us what a great idea it is.