By Stephen Lee
Nov. 1 — As coal king Jim Justice seeks the governorship of West Virginia, environmental advocates are warning that his pro-coal agenda would threaten the state’s water, air and economy.
In an e-mail to Bloomberg BNA, Justice said that, as governor, he would address the environmental problems of coal mining by pushing for more investment in “clean coal” technologies.
The term generally refers to systems that capture planet-warming carbon dioxide and store it permanently underground, and a Justice spokesman told Bloomberg BNA that he was, in fact, referring to carbon capture and sequestration.Justice didn’t offer details about how he would attract that investment but indicated that he supports research for unspecified technologies.
“I’m an outdoorsman,” said Justice, a Democrat, who has consistently led his opponent, Republican Bill Cole, in the polls. “I love hunting in our woods and fishing for our native brook trout. I want to protect our pristine waters and our wildlife.”
But he also said the U.S. economy can’t run without coal. If elected, Justice said he will create incentives for the state’s power plants to burn only West Virginia coal, and to find other new markets for it.
He also pointed to sharply rising prices for metallurgical coal, which is used to make steel, as an encouraging sign for the industry.
“We’re seeing the rebirth of coal right now, right in front of us,” Justice said.
Justice owns dozens of coal mines. His net worth is estimated at some $1.7 billion.
“I know the coal industry inside and out, and if the higher coal prices continue, it will mean a lot of people grabbing their dinner bucket and going to work,” Justice said. “Coal is not dead.”
But West Virginia is already struggling with a legacy of unfunded reclamation projects, so more coal mining would only add to that burden, said John Morgan, an engineer and senior vice president with the environmental consulting firm RESPEC.
“There are some sites where you could maybe decrease the [reclamation] liability by doing more mining, but that’s on a case-by-case basis,” Morgan told Bloomberg BNA. “And normally, the reason they’re not producing is because they’re a high-cost operation.”
Similarly, Sean O’Leary, senior policy analyst with the West Virginia Center for Budget and Policy, said he would worry about the state’s environment if coal were to see a resurgence.
“West Virginia has a long history of paying the price for the industry and for the rest of the country that has enjoyed the benefits of West Virginia coal,” O’Leary told Bloomberg BNA. “We are left behind with the cleanup, the health impacts, and eventually we’re all going to be paying the environmental price.”
Both Morgan and O’Leary also raised questions about the economic underpinnings of Justice’s plans.
In Morgan’s view, a mandate on the use of West Virginia coal would distort current market forces, which are encouraging power plants to use natural gas or coal from other states, both of which are cheaper than in-state coal.
“You would have to pay power plants to use West Virginia coal,” O’Leary said. “That probably won’t fit very well with the natural gas industry.”
Coal from Western states is cheaper and easier to mine, largely because West Virginia mines have been drilled so hard over the years that the remaining seams are hard to access.
“All these economic obstacles suggest that it’s just not feasible or realistic to think there’s some way to create an incentive to use West Virginia coal, and that’ll bring things back,” O’Leary said.
Complicating Justice’s campaign is the $5 million settlement he reached with the Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Justice Sept. 30 to clean up polluted wastewater at several of his mines.
But Tom Clarke, a coal mine owner who says he also is an environmentalist, said his 2014 efforts to get Justice to resolve some 300 Clean Water Act violations at his mines resulted in Justice’s companies correcting “every single one” of those deficiencies.
Cole, too, has expressed unwavering support for the coal sector.
A campaign staffer told Bloomberg BNA that Cole wants to eliminate government regulations that are restraining the state’s coal sector.
O’Leary said the pro-coal message both candidates have embraced is resonating with West Virginians who look back fondly on the 1960s and ‘70s, when the industry was roaring.
“People still remember that, and that’s the message that they want to hear a lot of times: We need to get the Environmental Protection Agency off our back, put our mines back to work and everything will be OK,” O’Leary said. “The alternative message is a lot harder to hear” that the industry’s not coming back, “and we need to start adjusting to the new industries we can bring in that aren’t coal.”
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