The coal industry made its presence known in Pittsburgh this week for public hearings on President Obama's controversial plan to address climate change. A key element is rules the Environmental Protection Agency proposed in June. They would cut greenhouse gas emissions — chiefly carbon dioxide — from existing power plants. The national goal is 30 percent by 2030, based on 2005 levels.
Coal has much to lose under the rules. The EPA says power plants make up about a third of the greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S., and coal is used to generate nearly 40 percent of electricity today. States have a variety of options for meeting their reduction targets, but in coal country the industry and its workers are worried about the future.
At an industry rally Wednesday, Joel Watts with the West Virginia Coal Forum opened the event with a prayer. Referring to "God-given coal fields" his prayer took aim at the White House and EPA. "Give us the strength to stand strong against those who lie to us and hide behind their laws," prayed Watts. After "amen" there was applause.
Few here mention climate change. They focus instead on jobs and the economy. "If you shut coal down you lose miners. Miners lose money and they can't get out and shop. So it affects other businesses — it affects your community," says Kathy Adkins, a nurse in Madison, W. Va., who's married to a retired coal miner.
This theme continued at EPA's public hearing at the federal building in downtown Pittsburgh. West Virginia's Democratic Secretary of State Natalie Tennant called for more federal investment in technologies to capture carbon from burning coal and then store it before it escapes into the atmosphere. "There is no reason to pit clean air against good-paying jobs," testified Tennant. "West Virginia can lead the country in developing coal technology that supports both."
But those who want to replace coal plants with cleaner forms of electricity see opportunity with these new rules. At an event organized by environmental groups, Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto spoke about a "new energy economy."
"We're not being dismissive of our brothers and sisters that are part of the older energy economy," said Peduto. "We want to bring them along and give them good jobs and opportunities in a new economy."
EPA officials heard oral comments this week from an estimated 1,600 people in four cities across the country: Washington, D.C., Atlanta, Denver and Pittsburgh. Each person was given five minutes.
Patricia DeMarco, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University's Green Sciences Institute, thanked the EPA for developing the proposed rules. "We are facing the definitive challenge of our time: the need to shift from a fossil-fueled economy to a renewable and sustainable economy," said DeMarco.
Others talked about the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to avoid future effects of climate change.
"It's those who are marginalized that will feel the full brunt of climate change," said Kathy Dahlkemper, county executive in Erie County, Pennsylvania. "The price of food likely will increase, and the poor are almost always the hardest hit when we have harsh, weather-related disasters."
The EPA says it already has received around 300,000 comments on the proposed rules. The deadline for submitting written comments is Oct. 16. The agency expects to issue final rules next June.
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
The centerpiece of President Obama's climate change policy has been the focus of public hearings this week around the country. The Environmental Protection Agency has proposed rules to cut greenhouse gas emissions from existing power plants by 30 percent over a 25-year period. NPR's Jeff Brady attended one hearing in Pittsburgh.
JEFF BRADY, BYLINE: Coal had a big presence here this week. Miners marched through the streets of downtown Pittsburgh. And there was a coal industry rally that started with a prayer.
JOEL WATTS: If you will bow your heads. God of creation and life abundant.
BRADY: Joel Watts with West Virginia Coal Forum read the prayer. Referring to God-given coalfields, he took aim at the White House and EPA.
WATTS: Give us the strength to stand strong against those who lied to us and hide behind their laws.
BRADY: After amen, there was applause.
BRADY: Coal has much to lose under the EPA's proposed rules. They're designed to reduce greenhouse gases, chiefly carbon dioxide. The EPA has options for states to choose from such as conserving electricity or building more wind and solar projects. Coal produces about 40 percent of the electricity in the U.S., but it has been losing market share to cleaner burning natural gas in recent years. That doesn't leave much room for the life Kathy Adkins of Madison, West Virginia knows. She's a nurse, and her husband is a retired coal miner.
KATHY ADKINS: If you shut coal down, you lose minors. Minors lose money. They can't go out and they can't shop so it affects other businesses. That affects your community.
BRADY: As the EPA's public hearing began Thursday morning, West Virginia Secretary of State Natalie Tennant was among the first to testify.
NATALIE TENNANT: There is no reason to pit clean air against good paying jobs. West Virginia can lead the country in developing coal technology that supports both.
BRADY: Tennant wants more federal investment in research for technologies to capture carbon before it can get up into the atmosphere. But among those who want to replace coal plants, they see opportunity at an event organized by environmental groups. Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto called for a new energy economy.
MAYOR BILL PEDUTO: And we're not being dismissive of our brothers and sisters that are part of the older energy economy. We want to bring them along and give them good jobs and opportunities in the new economy. But we can't be shackled to the way that things were.
BRADY: At the hearing, Kathy Dahlkemper spoke in favor of the EPA's proposed rules. She's the county executive in Erie, Pennsylvania.
KATHY DAHLKEMPER: It's those who are marginalized that will feel the full brunt of climate change as its effects become more pronounced in the coming decades. The price of food will likely increase. And the poor are almost always the hardest hit when we have harsh, weather-related to disasters.
BRADY: Hearings also were held this week in Washington, D.C., Atlanta and Denver. The EPA is expected to issue final rules next June. Jeff Brady, NPR News, Pittsburgh. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.