For nearly two centuries West Virginians watched as coal mining operations greedily chewed up millions of tons of earth to extract the rich black stuff. They saw the coal shipped out of state to feed America's industrial revolution. They watched the profits leave to fatten up far-away corporate bank accounts.
During the boom years of coal production, lawmakers in Charleston provided big tax breaks to the mining companies. Regulations meant to protect miners and the environment were relentlessly hammered away at. Republicans and Democrats alike winked and looked the other way as industry lobbyists plied them with perks and lined their pockets with campaign cash.
When the coal began to run out, West Virginians watched as the mine operators closed up shop, leaving behind flattened mountains, befouled valleys and streams, and workers who suddenly found themselves out of a job.
The operators also reneged on their promises to take care of retired and sick miners, by filing bankruptcies and evading pension obligations, all the while paying their executives millions of dollars in bonuses.
There is much more to worry about than just the human costs in lost jobs and ruined health. Old mining sites are littered with deep, dangerous holes. They leak toxins into the water table. Some are even on fire -- slow-burning conflagrations deep underground that have literally been burning for years. Tunnels and caverns beneath homes and entire towns are in danger of collapsing.
Coal ruled West Virginia decades ago, and mine owners held great sway over decision-making in the Capitol. Today, the natural gas industry finds itself on the verge of supplanting King Coal... but what we hear and see in Charleston is no different than it was a century ago. To quote the Who, "Meet the new boss, same as the old boss."
Governor Jim Justice recently floated a proposal to raise the state's natural gas severance tax. An increase of just a percentage point or two would have provided millions of needed dollars to the stagnant economy.
Gas industry lobbyists, and the lawmakers they pander to, howled in protest. The Governor's tax hike idea vanished so quickly many began to doubt they had ever even heard him utter it.
West Virginia, hungry for jobs, has embraced the growth in natural gas, often to the detriment of citizens and the environment. Industry lobbyists seek to weaken or eliminate regulations intended to minimize the impact of large-scale drilling operations. The companies practically write the tax proposals and property rights legislation Charleston votes on.
This all sounds terribly familiar, doesn't it?
It will be interesting to see if West Virginia's leaders get things right this time. Will they be able to get a handle on how growth in natural gas is regulated? Will they have the political backbone to ensure the operators do not shirk their obligations and responsibilities? Will the state reap its fair share of the billions of dollars in profits? Or will lawmakers roll over and play dead as they did for big coal?