Monday, July 05, 2010

Sen. Byrd and Big Coal -- Deathbed Conversion

Sen. Robert Byrd, who died last week, was best known for his shameless devotion to pork-barrel spending. (Growing up watching the Grand Ole' Opry, I also knew him for his fiddle-playing.) For more than a half-century, he manipulated the rules to the benefit of his home state of West Virginia. He was not modest about the adoration he enjoyed there, where people were said -- by him and others -- to believe in four things: God almighty, Sears Roebuck, Carvers little liver pills, and Robert C. Byrd - and not necessarily in that order. 

When we were driving routinely from graduate school in Ohio to visit family and friends in Maryland, we knew that the best highways along the route would Sen. Byrd's signature pavements through the Mountain State. The resentment of his manipulations of the budget process were in some respects well-earned, even with his largess the state remains among the poorest of the United States, and was in even worse condition we he began his political career. From my father and grandfather, I learned that in the generations following the Great Depression, schools in West Virginia taught the three Rs: "reading, 'riting, and the road to Washington," where plenty of unionized jobs in the building trades could be found, as a way out of the grinding poverty.

All of this is background to a story I heard while on a long drive with my family this Independence Day. The Evolution of Byrd is an important story that provides a glimmer of hope on environmental protection. For years, he saw environmentalists as the enemies of his people and their way of life (in no other state is the economy more dependent on coal mining). In his final years, he was not exactly a convert to the environmental cause, but he did begin to understand that removing mountain tops and accelerating the burning of coal might not bring unalloyed benefits to his beloved states. He did not exactly embrace environmentalism, but he was beginning to play the role of mediator between environmentalists and industry. Had he lived a few more than 92 years, perhaps his conversion would have been complete, as it seems to have been -- eventually -- on matters of race.

The same Living on Earth show includes the story Climate Bill Backup Plan which describes Duke Energy's leadership on climate. This is another glimmer of hope, as wishful thinking on climate change continues to gain traction.

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