Robert Byrd is being remembered today — the nation’s longest-serving senator passed away in Washington, D.C.

In his last year of life, Byrd challenged the coal industry to embrace the future. Byrd’s announcement was a total change of policy. While he based his decision on health concerns for miners as well as the environmental impact of mountaintop removal mining in his home state, Byrd’s reversal came after a checkered environmental past.

Byrd was a champion for miners and the industry —sometimes at the same time. In 1990, he nearly destroyed the relevance of the Clear Air Act of 1970 by inserting an amendment to legislation that would create a fund for coal miners who had lost their jobs due to the implementation of the act. In 1997, Byrd joined Democrat Chuck Hagel in leading the charge against ratifying the Kyoto Protocol. It worked. The vote was 95-0.

1n 1999, Byrd called out protesters after he led the West Virginia congressional delegation to fight against a judge's ruling that restricted mountaintop mining. Byrd said the protesters were:

“These head-in-the-cloud individuals peddle dreams of an idyllic life among old-growth trees, but they seem ignorant of the fact that, without the mines, jobs will disappear, tables will go bare, schools will not have the revenue to teach our children, towns will not have the income to provide even basic services.”
In 2008, Byrd was the only Democrat to vote to attempt to block the debate on the Lieberman-Warner Climate Security Act. But following the Sago and Alma mine tragedies, Byrd criticized mining companies for lax safety standards. Byrd continued to speak out against the coal industry until his death.

West Virginia Gov. Jim Manchin will select a successor to Byrd. Manchin is popular and could appoint himself. Manchin recently made news by applauding West Virginia’s now-senior senator, Jay Rockefeller, for supporting a potential block of the EPA’s authority to regulate greenhouse gasses. Still, Manchin is unlikely to appoint himself to the position.

The other name surfacing for appointment is Democratic Rep. Nick Rahall. Rahall chaired the House Subcommittee on Mining and Natural Resources. He helped write the 2006 MINER ACT. On his website, Rahall says he supports the continued use of coal but also believes in “increasing awareness for climate change.” 

Whomever is appointed will serve until 2012 or 2013, depending on how a fuzzy West Virginia Law is interpreted.