Byrd: ‘Coal Must Embrace the Future’

Thursday, December 03, 2009 at 3:36 pm

If you did a free association test on political insiders and said “Robert Byrd,” 90 percent of them would probably respond immediately with “coal.” The Democratic senator from West Virginia has undergone some major transformations over his record-setting career — most notably from KKK member to semi-reliable liberal — but the one constant has been his loyal support for the coal industry (see his definitive biography, “Robert C. Byrd: Child of the Appalachian Coalfields”).

Which makes his op-ed, published today in West Virginia’s MetroNews under the headline “Coal Must Embrace the Future,” all the more remarkable. In the piece, Byrd challenges West Virginians to think beyond the coal status quo and argues that it’s necessary to recognize the changes taking place in the energy industry, and to push West Virginia to the forefront of change rather than resisting it. He even attacks the environmentally detrimental practice of mountaintop mining — cherished by coal companies — and acknowledges the probability that climate legislation will pass “because most American voters want a healthier environment.”

Here’s the key passage of his op-ed on climate change:

To be part of any solution, one must first acknowledge a problem. To deny the mounting science of climate change is to stick our heads in the sand and say “deal me out.” West Virginia would be much smarter to stay at the table.

The 20 coal-producing states together hold some powerful political cards. We can have a part in shaping energy policy, but we must be honest brokers if we have any prayer of influencing coal policy on looming issues important to the future of coal like hazardous air pollutants, climate change, and federal dollars for investments in clean coal technology.

And his powerful conclusion:

Change has been a constant throughout the history of our coal industry. West Virginians can choose to anticipate change and adapt to it, or resist and be overrun by it. One thing is clear. The time has arrived for the people of the Mountain State to think long and hard about which course they want to choose.

Political insiders have portrayed Byrd as a difficult get for Democrats trying to pass cap-and-trade legislation. But as Byrd nears the end of his career and reflects on his legacy, I’ve speculated that he’s more likely to come around to climate legislation — which will be the most important environmental bill in our country’s history, if Congress manages to pass it — than a lot of pundits might think. His piece today suggests a step in that direction.

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