WHEELING - Coal remains the key component of the nation's energy portfolio and should be used along with renewable energy sources as part of an inclusive energy plan, candidates for West Virginia's 1st District U.S. House seat agree.
But incumbent Rep. David B. McKinley, R-W.Va., and Democratic challenger Sue Thorn differ on whether the Obama administration is waging an attack against the coal industry through more strict environmental regulations.
"There is a war on coal," McKinley said. "And the sooner we can get a national energy policy that includes fossil fuels, (the sooner coal) won't have to face this threat every few years after a change in administration.
"The concept of 'all the above' is valid. We just have to make sure they mean that."
Thorn isn't so certain the word "war" is appropriate to describe the coal industry's struggles with the Obama Administration.
"I don't like to use the term 'war,'" she said. "I understand what wars are. I also understand why some of the miners are concerned about their jobs.
"The fact (natural) gas is so cheap right now is affecting coal mining. A lot of plants are looking to changing over to gas because it's cheaper."
It's not a matter of the change being "good" or "bad," Thorn said. She noted it's just "economic reality."
According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, in March "coal's share of total net (electricity) generation dropped to 34 percent -the lowest level since at least January 1973." Low natural gas prices led to gas accounting for 30 percent of all generation in March.
West Virginia was the nation's third largest producer of coal in the first quarter of this year, behind Wyoming and Kentucky, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
-- During the current term of Congress, McKinley introduced House Bill 2273, the "Coal Residuals Reuse and Management Act." The measure seeks to stop fly-ash, the by-product resulting from the burning of coal, from being regulated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as a hazardous substance.
It first passed the House as stand-alone legislation, but was never addressed in the Senate. It was later added as an amendment to the federal Transportation Bill passed in the House, but was removed in the Senate.
Last month, the House passed the "Stop the War on Coal" bill that again contained McKinley's fly ash measure.
"We're sending a message (to the Senate) - this issue isn't going away," he said. "You're affecting way too many jobs."
McKinley doesn't believe the legislation will make its way through the Senate by the end of this year.
"People are now aware of the impact of this legislation ... and now they understand. When you burn coal, there is an ash - and how we are using it. We're using it in concrete, in tile, in brick, and another residual is used in drywall."
He said he will reintroduce his bill when the next Congress convenes in January.
"We've made progress - we're going to continue it if re-elected. If I'm fortunate to get back, we'll reintroduce the legislation," he said.
He said he and other House members also will seek to pass legislation next term establishing a long-term national energy policy.
"We can't have a national energy policy change every four years," McKinley said. "Utility companies all need to have some long-term prospective on this issue. It can't change from president to president.
"We can't afford to have a president that's so anti-coal. It's got to be part of our national energy policy. If he wants to tweak that, that's OK. But you can't throw out coal, and that's essentially what has happened here."
-- Thorn said coal jobs and a clean environment can co-exist in West Virginia.
"What has been West Virginia's history is we've been told we either have jobs or a clean environment," Thorn said. "I don't think it has to be an either/or situation."
Research at West Virginia University - located in the 1st Congressional District - could be instrumental in determining the future of coal use in the nation, according to Thorn.
"I would love to have the university involved in determining where we go next," she said. "There are certainly some resources there.
"I believe the United States can always solve problems, but we have to decide we want to do that."
She acknowledged alternative energies have a place in the nation's energy portfolio.
"But will they replace coal? No," Thorn said. "We have got to be able to diversify our economy, but there is no reason why the people of West Virginia can't be miners of other forms of energy, too.
"We have people in the Northern Panhandle that understand materials and understand how they work. They can be part of creating new energy sources."
The state also has a history in glass manufacturing, and that industry has the capability of producing alternative energy sources, she continued.
"The more we diversify, the better it is," Thorn said. "And no, none of those (alternative energy sources) single-handedly will replace coal, and I don't advocate replacing coal.
"But what are we doing to create jobs that our educated family members can stay in West Virginia and do?"