Americans heard something on the U.S. Senate floor last Wednesday that they haven't heard for nearly three years: a coal-state senator and longtime supporter of the coal industry speak eloquent truth to power.
Sen. Jay Rockefeller's 16-minute speech was remarkable for its wisdom and candor. It echoed a similar address in 2009 by another West Virginia Democrat and longtime coal-industry champion, the late Sen. Robert Byrd.
They both sounded like old friends trying to warn an alcoholic that his behavior had become unacceptably destructive, both to himself and to others.
The occasion for Rockefeller's speech was a resolution before the Senate to disapprove of new Environmental Protection Agency rules reducing coal-fired power plants' emissions of mercury and other toxic pollution.
The resolution was sponsored by Sen. James Inhofe, an Oklahoma Republican and climate-change denier, and endorsed by coal industry lapdogs including Sen. Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader from Kentucky.
"Coal has played an important part in our past and can play an important role in our future, but it will only happen if we face reality," Rockefeller began. (To watch the video, go to Youtu.be/ErN9v3e7zro)
"The reality is that many who run the coal industry today would rather attack false enemies and deny real problems than find solutions," he said. "Scare tactics are a cynical waste of time, money and, worst of all, coal miners' hopes."
Rockefeller then outlined some inconvenient truths that coal industry leaders gloss over when they attack environmental-protection laws and government regulation.
"First, our coal reserves are finite and many coal-fired power plants are aging," he said. "The cheap, easy coal seams are diminishing, and production is falling — especially in the Central Appalachian Basin in Southern West Virginia. Production is shifting to lower-cost areas like the Illinois and Powder River Basins.
"Second, natural gas use is on the rise. Power companies are switching to natural gas because of lower prices, cheaper construction costs, lower emissions and vast, steady supplies," he said.
"Third, the shift to a lower-carbon economy is not going away, and it's a disservice to coal miners and their families to pretend that it is," Rockefeller said. "Coal company operators deny that we need to do anything to address climate change despite the established scientific consensus and mounting national desire for a cleaner, healthier environment."
Rockefeller, who was West Virginia's governor from 1977 to 1985 and has been a senator ever since, said that in 2010, he proposed a two-year suspension of EPA carbon rules to try to help the coal industry adapt. Instead, the industry has fought all attempts at compromise. "This foolish action wastes time and money that could have been invested in the future of coal," he said.
Rockefeller said the EPA's actions are in the best interest of his state's citizens.
"The annual health benefits of the rule are enormous," he said. "EPA has relied on thousands of studies that established the serious and long-term impact of these pollutants on premature deaths, heart attacks, hospitalizations, pregnant women, babies and children."
If coal is to have a future, it must solve its environmental challenges rather than keep trying to avoid them, Rockefeller said.
"It's not too late for the coal industry to step up and lead by embracing the realities of today and creating a sustainable future," he said. "Discard the scare tactics. Stop denying science. Listen to what markets are saying about greenhouse gases and other environmental concerns, to what West Virginians are saying about their water and air, their health, and the cost of caring for seniors and children who are most susceptible to pollution.
"And unless this industry aggressively leans into the future, coal miners will lose the most," he said. "We have the chance here to not just grudgingly accept the future, but to boldly embrace it."
I'm sure Rockefeller's speech angered the coal barons, just as Byrd's speech did in December 2009. Coal industry leaders don't seem interested in listening to reason, even from politicians who have supported them for decades. They're probably already raising money to try to defeat Rockefeller in his next election. After all, there's no shortage of politicians willing to take the coal industry's money and do its bidding, in Kentucky and in West Virginia.
If Rockefeller's words have any impact, it is likely to be with the coal industry's declining work force, and with coal-state citizens who are getting fed up with poisonous air, polluted water and higher incidences of sickness and disease. Coal will never have a bright future as long as its leaders cling to a dirty past.