Coal plant.Can coal ever be clean? Wait, don’t answer that. Photo: Nick HumphriesWest Virginia state leaders were in an uproar last week over a remark about coal made by Rep. John Conyers of Michigan, elder statesman and one of the longest-serving members of the U.S. Congress. Did he call us inbred hillbillies?

Based on the angry reactions politicians like Sen. Joe Manchin and Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, you might think so (oh, wait — that came from coal industry lawyers, as reporter Ken Ward Jr. reminded us in his excellent post about this whole flap). Instead, Conyers simply had the audacity to suggest that the jury is out on whether coal can be clean, and that coal is perhaps not the golden ticket to economic nirvana for mining states like West Virginia. Specifically, he said this:

There’s a big campaign going on about how you clean coal and we want to examine that as critically and fairly as we can, but here’s the problem: I’ve been to West Virginia, and that’s about all they’ve got there.

We’ve got to work out a situation in one state of the union, there may be others, in which we come up with alternative ways of creating full employment without just putting everybody out of work.

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Conyers’ statement, which he made at an environmental justice conference in Detroit, inspired me to re-read an unforgettable statement penned by the late Sen. Robert C. Byrd in “Coal Must Embrace the Future“:

The greatest threats to the future of coal do not come from possible constraints on mountaintop removal mining or other environmental regulations, but rather from rigid mindsets, depleting coal reserves, and the declining demand for coal as more power plants begin shifting to biomass and natural gas as a way to reduce emissions …

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Change has been a constant throughout the history of our coal industry. West Virginians can choose to anticipate change and adapt to it, or resist and be overrun by it. One thing is clear. The time has arrived for the people of the Mountain State to think long and hard about which course they want to choose.

Based on the statements this week from Manchin, Tomblin, and others, I’d guess our state leaders are opting for the “resist and be overrun” option.

Manchin accused Conyers of degrading West Virginia, while Tomblin’s press release said it was a “sad day” when a member of Congress “attacks our State, our people, and a resource that not only has powered our Country but must also continue to play a significant role in the economic health of our economy.”

Their reactions imply that to even mildly criticize coal is an assault on the dignity of all West Virginians, period, end of story. But as I read his statement, I realize Conyers is simply stating a very obvious fact: Coal mining counties are some of the poorest counties in America, and West Virginia needs to diversify our economy beyond coal or we are in deep trouble.

A recent report ranked West Virginia dead last in clean energy leadership. The firm Clean-Edge put West Virginia at  No. 50 in its Clean Energy Leadership Index, which ranked states based on 70 technological and policy indicators.

State leaders like Manchin and Tomblin could use reports like this one as a call to arms, and use their positions of influence to spark a new generation of job creation and innovation here in West Virginia. They could drive investment and research to ensure that our state continues our proud tradition as an energy leader by developing, manufacturing, and installing the clean energy technologies of the 21st century, like wind turbines and solar panels.

After all, recent reports show that wind and solar are growing faster than ever, while coal generation is at a 30-year low. We all know that coal reserves in Appalachia are declining quickly — the best coal seams have simply been mined out. And wind industry jobs now outnumber coal mining jobs in this country.

Instead, our leaders are spending their time issuing hyperbolic press releases attacking anyone who might suggest that West Virginia should diversify its economy. My daughter is an 11th generation West Virginian, and by the time she is ready to raise a family of her own, I worry that our state will have been left behind, driven off a cliff by the leaders of today who refused to embrace the clean energy future. I hope I’m wrong about that.