Proponents of coal are warning the shifting energy economy in the southwestern part of Virginia could ripple across the rest of the commonwealth.
The Obama Administration is placing strict new regulations on the coal industry. Southwestern Virginia Republican Congressman Morgan Griffith says his constituents are feeling the impact already.
“It’s devastating on the district. It will affect the rest of the state as well, but not nearly as much as it will in my district in deep southwest Virginia.”
Besides forcing older, dirtier coal fired power plants to clean up or retire, the Environmental Protection Agency has placed prohibitions on mining under streams and taken steps to limit coal dust. Griffith says the combined impact is causing pain at home.
“Businesses are announcing their closure, layoffs. If you count the mom and pops that don’t get the press releases it’s every day. If you count press releases or bigger companies it’s roughly every week to 10 days that we’re losing a shift or losing a factory completely or losing a mine.”
Griffith says in the end all of the new regulations on coal are going to be paid for by everyday Virginians.
“It’s not the electric company that pays for that. It’s the householders and the businesses out there. And so every man, woman and child is going to see their electric rates sky rocket, as the president promised when he embarked on this policy in 2008. I just don’t think people believed him when he told them that. But now it’s going to happen.”
Northern Virginia Democratic Congressman Gerry Connolly says Griffith is exaggerating the extent of the economic repercussions from the new rules. “No. No. The largest utility in Virginia, the Dominion Power, has already taken this into account. It’s already made the retrofits or built new power plants that meet the current standards. So I think the disruption might be localized, maybe it may very well affect Mr. Griffith’s district, but I think for the rest of the state there won’t be disruption and I think the impact might be minimal.”
While Republicans argue the E-P-A is overstepping its mandate, Connolly supports the agency’s actions.
“I think it is a proper role for EPA.”
Connolly says EPA officials are merely doing what Congress - and subsequently the Supreme Court - have mandated. “Congress has mandated that EPA is in charge of cleaning up our water and cleaning up our air. We have to remember that dirty air, especially particulate matter and ozone levels, etc., lead to lots of premature deaths throughout the commonwealth of Virginia and the metropolitan area every year.”
Northern Virginia Democrat Jim Moran adds that the economics of coal go way beyond the cost of electricity. “The economic impact is being felt in the health care system. We spend millions and millions of dollars to care for children with asthma and lung disease and elderly who need breathing machines and it’s because of pollution in the air.”
Moran contends coal companies and many Republicans blame the administration while they really ought to be pointing their fingers at the nation's booming natural gas industry - cleaner, but also much cheaper.
With the economy still crawling out from the crater left by the downturn, Republicans argue it’s no time to be increasing regulations and potentially causing a hike in energy prices.
Virginia Republican Scott Rigell says the administration is doing too much too soon. “There’s no question that the cumulative effect of the regulatory environment that the Obama Administration has created and is advancing is causing a problem in our economy.”
And Congressman Griffith – who represents Virginia's coal country – says he just wishes the administration were more patient. “There’s a lot of technology and a lot of new science that’s being worked on out there. Unfortunately these new regs don’t wait for the science.”
But the administration isn’t waiting. That’s transforming the economy in southwestern Virginia. Now it’s a waiting game to see how much that impacts rate payers throughout the rest of the commonwealth.