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Coal, speak up

Apr 17, 2014 - By Steven R. Peck

The industry relies too much on political wishful thinking to confront its problems

A U.S. senator from West Virginia has a good idea for Wyoming.

Sen. Joe Manchin, who also is the former governor of West Virginia, says the nation's coal producers need to start speaking up on their own behalf -- and quit expecting others to do it for them.

West Virginia is a coal state. It's not a coal state like Wyoming -- no other state is -- but both states are feeling the effects of the simultaneous market decline and regulatory tightening that many politicians call the "war on coal."

Manchin was in our part of the country last week. The Associated Press reported on his remarks to the National Western Mining Conference in Denver. One problem, as the senator from West Virginia sees it, is that politicians are doing most of the talking about coal, rather than the industry.

And Manchin -- who is a Democrat, by the way -- knows the same thing that most Americans do, namely that things politicians say these days don't impress the American public very much.

Yet the coal industry seems largely to be relying on politicians to make their case for them. That seems like a bad idea, because members of Congress aren't accomplishing much these days. And the No. 1 politician in the country, the President of the United States, clearly is not a big fan of coal.

Industry supporters hoped that the president would be defeated when he ran for a second term, but instead he won handily. That was two years ago, and simply hoping a more coal-friendly president comes along two years from now is a risky strategy at best. If the election were held tomorrow, the new president apparently would be Hillary Clinton, who is not perceived as a particularly industry-friendly politician.

So Manchin thinks the coal industry ought to rely less on speech-making by political proxies, less on keeping their fingers crossed for a high-level government solution to their problem, and more on reminding the public of the economic benefits of a vibrant American coal industry.

While they are at it, coal leaders ought to start telling the American public that the environmental problems tied to coal that are real and clearly are gaining traction in the minds of many Americans, including national politicians, are not being ignored by the industry at the technological level.

Tell and show America's citizens that research and development are aimed at solving these challenges. The solutions can be found, but it will take more time than the government is giving the coal industry.

Both common sense and recent experience suggest that industrial scientists in the laboratory and the field stand at least as good a chance of winning the "war on coal" as bickering members of Congress do in Washington.

Wyoming coal has a strong history of meeting and solving problems through technology, innovation and persistence. It also has a strong message for the nation about energy economics and, yes, the environment. But it needs a better way of delivering it.

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