“You’re Hannah, right?” Hannah Morgan, a 20-year old from Appalachia, Virginia, was one of 11 protesters in handcuffs early Monday morning on Sept. 15 at the construction site for a coal-fired power plant being built in Wise County Virginia by Dominion Power. The handcuffs were applied by the police, but the questioner, it turns out, was from Dominion Power.

“Mumble, mumble, mumble,” the discussion between police and the Dominion man were too far away to be heard by the young people. But it almost seemed that the police were working for Dominion. Maybe that’s the way it works in a company town. Or should we say company state? Virginia has got one of the most green-washed coal-blackened governors in the nation [PDF].

It seems Hannah had been pegged by Dominion as a “ringleader.” She had participated for two years in public meetings and demonstrations against the plan for mountaintop removal, strip mining and coal burning, and she had rejected their attempts to either intimidate or bargain.

“Bargain?” What bargain is possible when Dominion is guaranteed 14 percent return on their costs, whether the coal plant’s power is needed or not. Utility customers have to cough this up, and they aren’t given any choice. The meetings and demonstrations were peaceful. Forty-five thousand signatures against the plant were collected. But money seems to talk louder.

Dominion’s “mumble, mumble” must have been convincing. Hannah and Kate Rooth were charged with 10 more crimes than the other 10 defendants. Their charges included “encouraging or soliciting” others to participate in the action and were topped by “obstruction of justice.” Penalty if convicted: up to 14 years in prison. (Why does this remind me of Jim Jobe in “Grapes of Wrath”?)

“Obstruction of justice?” My first thought was that this case might help draw attention to the inter-generational injustice and inequity of continued building of coal-fired power plants. Is the Orwellian doublespeak in the charge of “obstruction of justice” not apparent?

Executives in the coal and other fossil-fuel industries are now aware of the damage that continued coal emissions causes for present and future life on the planet. Yet their response is to promote continued use of coal, and in some cases even encourage contrarians to muddy the issue in the public’s mind. Their actions raise issues of ethical responsibility to the young and the unborn, and a question of legal liability, it seems to me.

Mountaintop removal is not the only potential source of energy. The governor of neighboring West Virginia asserted that if there were an alternative energy source, they would not need to continue strip mining. A case has since been made that over time wind power on the mountaintops could provide more power than coal, but if the mountaintops are removed for coal mining, the wind quality becomes less useful for power generation. The governor has not taken up the suggestion of wind instead of coal.

In Wise County the defense case is even stronger than at Kingsnorth [PDF] in the United Kingdom, because of demonstrable local effects of strip-mining. Twenty-five percent of Wise County is already devastated by mountaintop removal. Health problems of local residents associated with coal dust have been well documented [PDF]. Given all this, the peaceful protest of the demonstrators is commendable. They are just asking business to invest in Appalachia, not destroy it.

However, let me correct an error in a recent article by Andy Revkin in the New York Times. I have argued that it is time to “draw a line in the sand” and demand “no new coal plants,” but I have not advocated unlawful protest. My recommendation, as you can see in my presentation at Virginia Tech last week [PDF] is that this is the time to exert maximum effort to use the democratic process.

I participated in a press conference of PowerVote, and the above talk was in cooperation with Virginia Powershift 2008. The upcoming election potentially could be a tipping point, but it requires a lot of changes. Young people are doing a great job of informing people and getting out the vote. The organizations do not generally endorse specific candidates, but I have a very astute young friend who identified the most important races, where the outcome could affect actions on the climate matter.

That friend’s opinions (recommendations of the League of Conservation Voters) are below. They include Democrats and Republicans. (BTW, I am an Independent, and I believe that the United States needs a third party, but that will be the subject of a different post.)

Don’t expect the election to solve the climate problem. There are differences between Presidential candidates, but neither appears to “get it.” They both seem to think that “clean coal” exists. They both (and special interests) are likely to favor the hidden tax and market distortions of the inefficient “carbon cap-and-trade” game. For politicians and CEOs the shenanigan potential of “carbon cap-and-trade” is irresistible — it beats the pants off a simple, honest, effective “carbon tax and 100 percent dividend” that would put money in the hands of consumers and drive innovations and energy/carbon efficiency in the most economically effective way.

Back to Hannah Morgan et al and the proposed coal plant. No happy ending here, at least not yet. The defense lawyer realized that a trial would be dangerous. An “unfavorable jury pool” made the possibility of prison time real. With 14 charges against Hannah and Kate, it was unlikely that a jury would find them innocent of all charges. Result: a “B-minus” plea bargain.

This, it seems to me, is the reality of the present situation in the United States. The fossil fuel industry has enormous power, with big influence on the public, as well as on politicians. Although practical steps to stabilize climate, with other benefits, can be defined, it will be difficult to overcome fossil fuel special interests, and we are running out of time. That is my rationale for interjecting comments/recommendations about the upcoming election into this note.

Don’t expect the young people to give up. But they shouldn’t be standing alone. They didn’t even create the mess. They are just inheriting it.

To top it off, because I was on travel, I couldn’t make it to the court proceedings. They had decided to accept the plea bargain, but asked me to write a statement on their behalf (which follows), but when I sent an e-mail in the wee hours that morning I failed to attach the attachment! It figures — they are pretty much on their own anyhow.

My statement:

If this case had gone to trial I would have requested permission to testify on behalf of these young people, who, for the sake of nature and humanity, had the courage to stand up against powerful “authority.” In fact, these young people speak with greater authority and understanding of the consequences of continued coal mining, not only for the local environment, but for the well-being of nature itself, of creation, of the planet inherited from prior generations.

The science of climate change has become clear in recent years: if coal emissions to the atmosphere are not halted, we will drive to extinction a large fraction of the species on the planet. Already almost half of summer sea ice in the Arctic has been lost, coral reefs are under great stress, mountain glaciers are melting world-wide with consequences for fresh water supplies of hundreds of millions of people within the next several decades, and climate extremes including greater floods, more intense heat waves and forest fires, and stronger storms have all been documented.

Our parents did not realize the long-term effects of fossil fuel use. We no longer have that excuse. Let us hope that the courage of these young people will help spark public education about the climate and environmental issues, and help us preserve nature for the sake of our children and grandchildren.