Making New Friends for Coal

Many – though not all – members of Congress from coal-producing states agree President Barack Obama’s war against coal is a terrible idea. But it won’t be thwarted unless they can convince more of their colleagues the White House policy is bad for tens of millions of their constituents.

Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., is involved in a thoughtful campaign to do just that. We may get a hint this afternoon whether his strategy works.

Manchin understands the first step in battling the demonization of coal and those who mine and use it is to bring lawmakers to coal country. So, he brought two important senators, Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, to West Virginia on Friday. They were to remain in the state until at least this afternoon.

The two senators are important because they are their parties’ ranking members on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, on which Manchin has a seat. Wyden may find himself in the chairmanship in the not-too-distant future.

A power plant at Mount Storm and a mining complex at Sharples, W.Va., were on the group’s itinerary. This afternoon, in company with Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, they plan to hold a press conference in Charleston. There, we may get a hint as to whether the tour had an effect on Wyden’s and Murkowski’s opinions about coal – and, just as important, coal states.

Manchin’s idea is to show the two West Virginia is a leader in alternative energy as well as coal-fired electricity. He also wants them to see a modern, coal-fired power plant with advanced pollution controls. “We’ve cleaned up the environment more in 20 years than ever in the past,” he told me in explaining one reason he wants Wyden and Murkowski to see such a facility.

Murkowski has voted in the past against radical environmental policies, so she won’t require much convincing. But Wyden, a Democrat from the liberal Pacific Northwest, at first glance seems a different story.

For example, he has urged more federal spending on alternative energy. He voted against the proposed Keystone XL Pipeline.

But there’s another side to him. He also has expressed worry about the cost to consumers of not upgrading the nation’s electric transmission grid. And late last year, he wrote to Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson of his concern about an EPA plan to enforce new rules on fuels burned in boilers. Wyden suggested the EPA might want to allow more time for owners of large industrial boilers to adjust to the rules.

That doesn’t sound like a dyed-in-the-wool radical to me.

Manchin’s campaign of diplomacy is what he does best – using his personality and persuasive power to build desirable consensus, in this case to save the U.S. coal industry.

But Wyden and Murkowski aren’t enough. By my estimate, Manchin is going to have to find and persuade about eight, perhaps 10, other senators to join the bloc already planning to block Obama’s war on coal. That will require identifying senators from states where lots of power from coal-fired generating stations is used now, but will be replaced by more costly sources if the president has his way.

Senators from states such as Minnesota, Michigan and Wisconsin, where there is little or no coal mining but coal-fired power plants serve large percentages of residents would be good candidates.

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In paying tribute in last week’s column to an old friend I respected highly, the late Bill Gilligan, I noted he served “a couple of terms” in the West Virginia State Senate. Actually, he was elected twice after being appointed to fill out an unexpired term, for a total of 11 years in the Legislature.

Bill, who passed away June 6, was respected by many throughout the Ohio Valley because of his work in the private sector and in local and state governments, in charitable organizations and in his church and community. A memorial service for him is scheduled for 4 p.m. today at Myers Funeral Home in Sistersville.

Myer can be reached via e-mail at