In December, 2009, U.S. Senator Robert Byrd delivered one of the most critical speeches of the latter part of his storied career.  Byrd called for an “open and honest dialog about coal’s future.”

Byrd questioned the future of mountaintop removal mining, acknowledged the “mounting science of climate change,” called out the coal industry for “fear mongering” and “grandstanding” and called for the industry to “embrace the future” by working with Congress and regulatory agencies.

It was a politically explosive speech; one that ran counter to the traditional tack taken by coalfield politicians from West Virginia.  But he was Robert Byrd, the iconic West Virginia figure whose considerable political capital made him unbeatable on Election Day.

Wednesday, Jay Rockefeller tried to channel his best Robert Byrd, his late colleague. The five-term Democrat took to the floor to detail his opposition to a resolution by Senator James Inhofe (R-Oklahoma) aimed at stopping the EPA from implementing the Utility MACT rule to reduce mercury and other pollutants from electric power plants.

The Inhofe resolution failed 46-53.

Rockefeller argued that supporting the EPA rule helps preserve a way of life in West Virginia, with healthy families and strong communities.  “I’ve always stood behind West Virginian’s health, and I do so still today,” Rockefeller said.

The actual health benefits from the rule are debatable.

The EPA has framed the new rule in terms of life or death.  “These new standards will avert up to 11,000 premature deaths, 4,700 heart attacks and 130,000 asthma attacks every year,” claims the EPA.

However, the Congressional Research Service has said, “Critics of the rule say that the benefits of controlling mercury are actually quite small.  There is some truth to this criticism.”

The political question, however, is how will Rockefeller’s speech and vote play on the home front?  Not well in most quarters, especially the southern coal fields.

The mighty coal industry is staggering because of competition from cheaper, cleaner natural gas and increasingly burdensome EPA rules that make it harder to mine, sell and burn coal.    The unemployment rate in Boone County, which produces more coal than any other county, shot up to 12.5 percent in May.

“It’s been going on for several months now,” said Boone County Commissioner Mickey Brown.  “They’ve got a surplus on the ground and the price of coal is down.  The EPA really isn’t helping at all.”

The EPA’s Utility MACT rule, the new restrictions on carbon emissions and other rules directly impacting coal-fired power plants, set up a regulatory obstacle course for the coal industry.  That’s a real threat to West Virginia’s economy, miners' jobs and jobs in related industries.

Yet when Rockefeller had a chance Wednesday to try to curb the EPA bum’s rush of coal, he sided with the EPA, and oddly tried to couch it as a pro-worker move.

“I am standing with coal miners today by voting against this resolution,” Rockefeller said.  Memo to Jay: Don’t try that line at the annual Labor Day picnic in Racine.

Remember that when Rockefeller first ran for Governor in 1972, he called for the abolition of strip mining.  He lost the election, changed his position, made nice with the UMWA, and has won every election since.

Maybe Rockefeller does believe he’s reached Byrd-like status (he hasn’t), or perhaps he’s decided not to run for reelection in 2014 (he turned 75 June 18) and is speaking and voting based on his core beliefs, some of which date back to his earliest days in West Virginia.

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