By Tony Rutherford
Listening to Jeff Kessler (D-Marshal) campaign for governor brings a surge of optimism and hope. He's tired of seeing young people forced to leave the Mountain State; he believes West Virginia can go from the bottom to the top for economic conditions based on the large amount of natural gas in the ground.
Having completed the 2011 regular legislative session as Acting Senate President, Kessler said, "We'll have everything sorted out and fixed" in May and October. Of course, he referred to the political scramble which set in following the death of U.S. Senator Robert C. Byrd. Eventually, Gov. Joe Manchin won the remaining term of the esteemed late-Senator and Earl Ray Tomblin stepped in as acting governor.
Tomblin, the "former' and "real' president of the WV Senate, hoped that he might fill all of Manchin's term, but the WV Supreme Court interpreted the Constitution as mandating a special election to fill the full period of Manchin's unexpired term. The primary will be Saturday, May 14 and the general October 4. The new elected governor will take the oath of office Nov. 15, 2011.
Kessler spoke to a group of about 50 at Marshall University's Corbly Hall, Wednesday, April 13.
HNN: There's a large field of candidates, why might someone vote for you?
KESSLER: I'm one of the only candidates that has a vision of where West Virginia needs to be a decade from now. I'm not worried about winning this year; I want to put us on a path for the year 2020. West Virginia is poised to have what I believe to be a break out decade. With the state's energy resources and other opportunities, I think we can position our self. Other states have desperate financial circumstances, [but] West Virginia is in a relatively good financial situation. We have an opportunity to catch them but pass them. We've always been at the bottom of the valley looking at the top of the mountain and could not catch other states.
HNN: Does your optimism relate to the state's natural gas and coal?
KESSLER: I think natural gas has a bigger opportunity. First, we have come out of the recession and wherever you go in the country --- north, south, east or west --- [the state's] need what we have and that's energy. Obviously, we have abundant coal reserves and in the short term for the next couple of decades , there's no viable alternative for base load energy needs other than coal. I'm excited about the Marcellus natural gas opportunities which might be as big as the 70s oil boon in Alaska and the 30s gas boon in Texas. A great amount of opportunity and wealth was created in those states.
It's different than coal. In the late 1800's and early 1900's, the coal companies came in bought the coal, owned the coal, bought the land, owned the land. While they created jobs --- there used to be 150,000 coal miners now there's 14,000 --- once they mechanized those jobs , so areas of the state that were the richest in coal resources are now some of the poorest areas of the state. They did not diversify their economy. [Coal] jobs created wealth, but the wealth was exported.
With natural gas, it will not be sold to companies, they are leasing the gas in five year increments. Companies are paying $2,000 to $3,000 per acre. If a farmer has 100 acres, you're picking up $300,000. Plus, every mcf of gas out of the ground, you're going to get a 12 to 18 percent royalty. Nearly 20% of every penny coming out of the ground will stay in WV with landowners. In the coal boon, the ownership, resources and royalties all went out of state.
[The natural gas find] creates opportunities for us to save money and create opportunities to diversity our economy.
HNN: Two states have attacked collective bargaining. Where do you stand on labor-management issues?
KESSLER: A man deserves a right to make a living. A lot of the problems in WV and as a nation relates to the Middle Class. I come from the northern part of the state where coal was important, but we heavily relied on the steel and chemical manufacturing. Those industries have been shipped overseas. We've lost a significant amount of jobs. We need a strong, vibrant middle class in the US in order to succeed. Unfortunately, during the last decade or so, particularly under the prior administration, most of the money and resources flowed to the top to the detriment of the middle class. We shipped jobs overseas for cheap labor and we were left with minimum wage jobs without health [insurance] and benefits. Look at all the problems we're having because of future health care liabilities. The same thing is going on nationally. I think national health insurance is a good thing. Many of the companies staying here compete in other countries, like Canada which has national health insurance. We have to build it in to the cost of goods manufacturing which makes it tough for our employers to compete on the international market. I absolutely support worker's rights.
HNN: Considering the severity of the nuclear catastrophe in Japan, what are your thoughts on the use of nuclear power in the US?
KESSLER: Frankly, I'm willing to look at all energy options. For the base load energy needs, coal and natural gas are the exclusive carbon based fuels that, in the short term, to provide the nation's energy needs. I like solar and wind , but there's not enough now to create the base line energy needs of this country.
People think coal is dirty. How many folks would want a nuclear power plant in their back yard after what has happened in Japan. I would say the answer is no. We haven't built a nuclear power plant in this nation in , I think, 35 years [or more]. After what's happened over there, you won't see a mad rush to nuclear power.