When a group of Senators tried to kill standards that protect Americans from mercury, arsenic, and other toxic pollution from power plants, 53 Senators stood up for our health and preserved the standards.

Senator Rockefeller

Senator Jay Rockefeller (Photo: Sen Rockefeller / Flickr)

There were many heroes that day, but one really stood out to me: Senator Jay Rockefeller.

Senator Rockefeller represents West Virginia, and though coal companies have often had a stranglehold on state politics, Rockefeller gave a clear-eyed speech from the Senator floor that set the record straight.

“The shift to a lower-carbon economy is not going away, and it’s a disservice to coal miners and
their families to pretend that it is,” he said. “We need to focus squarely on the real task of finding a long-term future for coal that addresses legitimate environmental and health concerns.”

Back in West Virginia’s capital, the Charleston Gazette covered the speech on its front page with a headline declaring: Jay to Coal: ‘Face Reality.’ The paper endorsed Rockefeller’s position with an editorial called, “Go forward, not back, on coal.”

I spent a lot of time in West Virginia as a kid. My grandfather was a minister there, and we attended his services every weekend. I remember how proud he was of his state and its long history of rugged independence. In many ways, West Virginia is a place apart. Its craggy ridges and hollows, music and culture, and long tradition of coal mining give it a unique flavor.

Yet the debate raging in the state right now echoes the tensions running through the 112th Congress and the current election cycle.

Will polluting industries continue to resist public health safeguards at every turn? Will energy companies keep looking backward or will they start embracing change? Will we elect leaders who represent special interests or ordinary citizens?

Dirty fuel companies are pulling out all the stops to maintain the status quo, both in West Virginia and around the nation. They have saturated West Virginia air waves with ads saying coal is under siege by the Environmental Protection Agency.

The truth is coal is struggling because of market forces, not clean air standards. The President of Appalachian Power recently told the Charleston Gazette, “Nobody is building any new coal [plants]. The economics just aren’t there. Gas is just so cheap. … I don’t think anybody is going to build a coal plant, given natural gas prices. It’s just economics.”

You don’t hear many coal executives acknowledging this reality. As Rockefeller said in his speech to the Senate, “The reality is that many who run the coal industry today would rather attack false enemies and deny real problems than find solutions. Instead of facing the challenges and making tough decisions like men of a different era, they are abrogating their responsibilities to lead.”

West Virginians—and all Americans—deserve leaders who will face the facts and prepare for a better, more sustainable future. Leaders who will help coal miners and power-plant operators train for the low-carbon economy. Leaders who will promote responsible energy development and protect our kids from toxic air pollution at the same time.

Rockefeller has proven capable of that kind of leadership. I don’t always agree with him, but I know his vote and his comments last Wednesday will help lead his state into the future. It’s time we listen to that wisdom and elect more lawmakers who can lead us into the cleaner future.