CHARLESTON — West Virginia Coal Association Senior Vice President Chris Hamilton served as the keynote speaker for the April 2 meeting of the Kanawha Valley Mining Institute in South Charleston. Hamilton gave an overview of the recently concluded 2015 session of the West Virginia Legislature and important coal and business-related legislation that was passed.
“We have witnessed the most productive and efficiently run 60-day legislative session the state has experienced in recent memory,” Hamilton said. “ The Legislative leadership teams of Senate President Bill Cole and House Speaker Tim Armstead ran the session like a good business,” Hamilton explained. “In fact, unlike most legislative sessions, consideration on major pieces of legislation began immediately upon session kickoff on January 14 and didn’t end until midnight March 14. Gone was the mentality of spending the first 30 days socializing and easing into the work of session. And Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin deserves praise for his willingness to work across party lines to do what is in the best interest of the state and its people.
Hamilton outlined the changes to the Legislature that came as a result of the November 2014 election, with the polar shift of power as Republicans swept into control of both Houses of the Legislature, grabbed all three Congressional seats and picked up the U.S. Senate seat vacated by the retirement of Sen. Rockefeller.
“The result was a much more business-friendly Legislature,” Hamilton said, “with a focus on positive business law changes, tort reform, tax reform and budget reductions.”
Of the 1,600 bills introduced during the session, 162 of them were coal-related and in fact, the first action by the new Legislature was to elevate the energy committee to major committee status. The first piece of legislation passed during the session was the overturning of the state’s renewable energy portfolio, which threatened coal mining jobs by forcing a shift to a higher percentage of renewable and alternative sources of energy. And the Legislature passed the Coal Jobs and Safety Act of 2015 (SB 357), which made significant reforms to help the coal industry compete while improving safety in the state’s mines.
Hamilton noted that the bill included elimination of the Diesel Commission, toughening drug testing, the addition of sideboards and cameras to underground equipment, and improvements to regulations governing the movement of equipment underground.
The bill also included changes to the state’s aluminum and beryllium standards as well as changes to reclamation regulations that allow the companies to hold inactive surface mines in ready reserve for longer periods of time before reclamation is required so that production can resume with changes to the economic situation. The bill also brought state and federal regulations into conformity, reducing confusion and cost.
Hamilton also provided an overview of the current status of West Virginia’s coal industry with a focus on the challenges faced by the industry and the state as a result of the combination of economic and political policy factors.
“The reality is that we face a host of challenges,” Hamilton said. “Including economic uncertainty around the world, relatively mild weather patterns over the past few years, low natural gas prices and, of course, the impacts of the regulatory policies being pursued by the EPA, MSHA and OSM. All of these have come together to create a ‘perfect storm’ for West Virginia’s coal industry – a storm that has cost thousands of jobs and billions in economic losses.”
Hamilton pointed out that the state has lost approximately 28 percent of its coal production since the Obama Administration took office in 2009, as well as more than 5,000 direct coal mining jobs and tens of thousands of support jobs.
A host of significant legislation passed on the business and industrial development front. Just a few of these initiatives include: Prevailing Wage Reform, Auto Dealer Franchise Protections, Coal Jobs & Safety Act, Environmental Regulatory Updates, Industrial Property Protection, Repeal of Energy Portfolio Standards, Storage Tank Regulation, Teacher Certification Expansion, and Wage Payment updates.