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Can Virginia’s Coal Industry Survive the EPA ?

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 (This first ran in the Richmond Times Dispatch)

Senators Jim Webb and Mark Warner soon, possibly this week, will have a chance to strike a blow in favor of responsible environmental policies that are balanced with common sense about the nation’s, and Virginia’s, economic future.

Their support is needed for a resolution, introduced by Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma, to rein in the Environmental Protection Agency’s overzealousness by blocking new EPA air quality regulations that would make it incredibly difficult if not virtually impossible for utilities to continue using coal to generate electricity.

This is of great importance to The Commonwealth of Virginia.  For one thing, coal is used to generate about a third of Virginia’s power.  If the EPA succeeds in shutting down coal-fired generation, a switch to energy sources whose costs are more volatile, such a natural gas, or developing alternatives such as  wind and solar power, will most likely  push utility bills  significantly higher.  Needless to say, that is a very bad thing, especially in still-shaky economic times.

But the potential damage to Virginia from the EPA goes even deeper.  While coal may seem like an “old school” industry to many people, it remains very much part of today’s way to make a living here.  Virginia is a top coal producing state, with 32,000 jobs either directly or indirectly dependent upon coal mining.  That accounts for a $2.5 billion collective payroll.  And of course, thousands more in coal communities depend on those wage earners spending their money for housing, food and other essentials.

Nevertheless, the EPA says coal is “too dirty.”  They make this pronouncement despite enormous and ongoing technological steps that have greatly reduced emissions from the burning of coal.  The EPA bureaucrats  are holding fast despite the economic havoc their action will create, both for electricity consumers and for all those Virginians and other Americans who take coal out of the ground and move it to market.

Even with the rules not yet imposed, their effect is being felt.  Utility contracts for power to be generated three years from now already reflect a confidence that fuel prices will be higher because of the switch away from coal.  And coal use in power plants is already dropping in anticipation of the rules.  Surely, the layoffs of workers and shutdowns of mines won’t be far behind.  And remember that in rural southwestern Virginia, where most of the mining is done, there simply aren’t a lot of other jobs to be had.

Reasonable environmental stewardship and economic development needs for Virginia do not need to be opponents as some in the EPA seem to want.  Coal use for our energy needs is much cleaner than just a few years ago. Sens. Warner and Webb understand the heavy handed government regulations are harmful when not balanced off with a real-world perspective.  Their support for a reasonable coal policy, and against the unreasonable EPA approach, will be a huge benefit to Virginia.
And that’s what they must do, for the sake of thousands of Virginians who need jobs and depend on the coal industry to provide them.  And for the millions of us – every  Virginia citizen – who pays for electricity.

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