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Editorial: Starting dialogue with EPA a step in right direction

Aug. 11, 2013 @ 10:10 PM

A delegation from West Virginia came away from a meeting this month with the Environmental Protection Agency's new administrator feeling somewhat encouraged that they may be able to "hit the reset button" with federal regulators regarding the coal industry.

Whether that button is reset at all, or exactly in what place, remains to be seen. However, the group of Democrats -- including members of the congressional delegation, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin and others, as well as coal industry and labor representatives -- said they believed new EPA chief Gina McCarthy at least heard their message.

If she truly did, that might be at least a beginning of a view in Washington that simply driving the coal industry into the ground has economic ramifications as well as an impact on the nation's energy picture.

Not long after Barack Obama took office as president in 2009, coal industry officials have maintained that his administration has waged a war on coal, with more stringent environmental regulations and holdups in the permitting of new mines. Those regulatory actions and comments from Obama himself have certainly given credence to that view. In June, the president announced a plan to cut carbon emissions, pursue clean technology and encourage other countries to close coal-fired power plants. That only added to the concerns of West Virginia politicians and coal industry officials.

Not all that has plagued the coal industry is the government's fault, of course, although Mountain State officials and the coal industry seldom want to talk about that. The increased availability of cleaner-burning natural gas, the availability of low-sulfur coal in other states and the diminishing amount of easily reachable coal in West Virginia are contributors, too.

But West Virginia officials' do have two key points to make, and it would be welcome news if those in Washington would acknowledge and take them into account.

One is that the EPA's tough stance on coal does have an economic impact, contributing to a loss of jobs in the mining industry. It is not unreasonable to ask that EPA officials examine and consider that impact as they develop and enforce regulations.

Another is that coal will remain a key part of the nation's energy portfolio for many, many years to come, whether the powers-that-be in Washington like it or not. In 2012, coal was used to generate more than a third of the nation's electricity. While moving to develop cleaner sources of energy -- natural gas as well as solar and wind sources -- the infrastructure for those sources is developing slowly and will not be in position to supplant coal entirely any time soon.

Essentially, coal continues to be vital to the nation's power infrastructure and should remain an important part of the nation's energy plans. Working to eradicate it as quickly as possible -- which critics of the Obama administration claim he's trying to do -- does not make sense.

The meeting 10 days ago with McCarthy at least marked a step forward for West Virginia's relationship with the EPA. Her predecessor in that job wouldn't even acknowledge state leaders' letters asking for a meeting.

Now, it's a matter of waiting to see whether the dialogue with McCarthy will yield any policy changes in the EPA that result in a more balanced approach factoring in the economy as well as the environment.

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