Sen. Robert C. Byrd’s legacy: Coal, climate change and the future of the W.Va. coalfields

(AP Photo/Jeff Gentner)
Lights on top of West Virginia’s Capitol dome were turned off this week in memory of Sen. Robert C. Byrd.
July 1, 2010
“Our lord we thank you for our senator who has left a tremendous legacy so that our mountains will continue to feel the gentle steps of those who love them, that his legacy will be our rolling hills and they will continue to hear the sound of mountain music.” — Brad Reed, W.Va. Army Guard Chaplain

That was part of the prayer offered last evening at the brief ceremony when Sen. Robert C. Byrd’s funeral procession reached the south steps of the state Capitol here in Charleston.

There’s been so much written and said about Sen. Byrd in the last week that perhaps it’s pointless to try to write or say much more. But while the words of that prayer could be read many ways (watch the whole thing on C-Span), they certainly got me thinking about the important unfinished business political leaders in West Virginia’s coalfields have before them in the wake of Sen. Byrd’s passing.

– First, Congress is still going around and around on a climate change/energy bill, and it’s hard to know exactly what direction that discussion is going. But what role will West Virginia’s remaining political leaders play? Will they, to paraphrase Sen. Byrd, “stick their heads in the sand” and continue to dispute the science and ignore the need to make meaningful reductions in coal’s greenhouse gas emissions?

The state’s best hope in this regard is probably Sen. Jay Rockefeller, whose role as chairman of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation puts him in a key role in the debate. While he’s insisted he doesn’t argue the science, Sen. Rockefeller has voted otherwise, and his public statements have indicated he’s very intent on not doing anything that someone like Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship might be able to attack as “anti-coal.”

Sen. Rockefeller was among those who attended a key White House meeting earlier this week about the energy and climate change issue, and this is what his office put out to describe his participation:

Senator Rockefeller did attend the White House meeting, which is part of the ongoing discussion about the future of energy legislation. Senator Rockefeller made clear to the President – as he has before – that, for him, energy discussions start and stop with the economy and jobs and he will not support any bill that hurts West Virginia families. He appreciates the ongoing dialogue with the White House and with his colleagues on both sides of this aisle on this important issue and believes these discussions will and should continue.

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