Is it too late for Central Appalachia to prepare for the coming collapse of the coal industry?

October 3, 2011 by Ken Ward Jr.

In this Wednesday, Aug. 17, 2011, photo, coal lies in piles around a conveyor system at a mine near Meta, Ky. Coal is deeply linked to the culture and economy in Central Appalachia but the industry is facing an expected collapse in production over the next few years. (AP Photo/Ed Reinke)

While I was out for a few days last week, the folks at The Associated Press discovered what Coal Tattoo has been trying to get Central Appalachian residents and political leaders to focus on for nearly two years now.

The AP’s Dylan Lovan reported:

When business screeched to a halt at Jerry Howard’s eastern Kentucky mine engineering company two years ago, he decided to call it quits after four decades in the coal industry.

“We were sort of forced out,” Howard says of the former company, Walturn, where he was part owner.

Business owners like Howard, politicians and miners in the hilly coalfields of Central Appalachia blame the industry decline on tougher regulation from the Obama administration.

They aren’t as ready to talk about something a change in administrations cannot fix. The region’s thick, easy-to-reach seams of coal are running out, forcing many operators to shift to cheaper and more destructive mining methods that draw heavier environmental regulation.

Coal here is getting harder and costlier to dig — and the region, which includes Southern West Virginia, Virginia and Tennessee, is headed for a huge collapse in coal production.

The U.S. Department of Energy projects that in a little more than three years, the amount of coal mined here will be just half of what it was in 2008. That’s a significant loss of a signature Appalachian industry, and the jobs that come with it.

The story quoted from Rory McIlmoil, co-author of the must-read report by Downstream Strategies, “The Decline of Central Appalachian Coal and the Need for Economic Diversification“:

We are going to see declines in labor and jobs, and it’s going to happen rapidly.

But it also noted that major players in the coal industry are well aware of what’s coming:

Arch Coal, the nation’s second-largest coal producer, told investors last year that the region’s coal “is in secular decline — faced with depleting reserves and significant regulatory hurdles.”

Unfortunately, Lovan focused much of his story on repeating the complaints from the coal industry and its political allies about the Obama administration’s crackdown on mountaintop removal and proposals to curb air pollution and greenhouse emissions from coal-fired power plants — rather than putting these industry officials and the region’s business and political leaders on the spot for what their plan is for dealing with the inevitable production decline that has little if anything to do with environmental rules.

In this Wednesday, Aug. 17, 2011, photo, former coal company owner and mine engineer Jerry Howard holds tools of his former trade as he stands in his woodshop in Garrett, Ky. Coal is deeply linked to the culture and economy in Central Appalachia but the industry is facing an expected collapse in production over the next few years. (AP Photo/Ed Reinke)

The Gazette said today in an editorial:

For decades, economists have warned that West Virginia must seek a wider variety of industries and businesses, because the days of coal are numbered. These new research findings indicate that state leaders should redouble their effort to diversify — quickly.

But Jeff Goodell at Rolling Stone was more to the point:

The end of coal in Appalachia doesn’t mean that America is running out of coal (there’s plenty left in Wyoming). But it should end the fantasy that coal can be an engine of job creation – the big open pit mines in Wyoming employ a tiny fraction of the number of people in an underground mine in Appalachia. And for a variety of reasons – railroad congestion among them – Wyoming coal is never going to ramp up production enough to have a meaningful impact on job creation. For better or worse, the bulk of coal industry jobs are in Appalachia – and when that coal is gone, so are the jobs.

More important, the decline of Appalachian coal means it’s time for every political candidate with national aspirations to stop kissing the industry’s ass in important swing states like Ohio, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia. The future of these states depends on their ability to re-invent their economies, not preserving a relic of the past. The relevant questions now are: How do we move beyond coal? How do we bring new jobs to the coal fields and retrain coal miners for other work? How do we inspire entrepreneurialism and self-reliance in people whose lives have been dependent on the paternalistic coal industry?

It also means it’s time to stop letting Big Coal spike every conversation about climate and energy policy. For decades, climate and energy policy has been held hostage by bullshit arguments from the coal industry that any attempts to reduce greenhouse gas pollution or shift to renewable energy will bring economic ruin to America.

Well, the decline and fall of the coal industry shows that just the opposite is true: Our future is not dependent on burning more coal, but on getting off it as quickly as possible and creating a new economy based on clean, renewable energy. It may be too late for West Virginia to save itself from the ravages of Big Coal. But it’s not too late for America.

16 Responses to “Is it too late for Central Appalachia to prepare for the coming collapse of the coal industry?”

  1. Ted Boettner says:

    This past summer I taught a class on economic issues and public policy at WVU in Morgantown. One of the textbooks we used was John Kingdon’s classic Agenda’s, Alternatives, and Public Policy. In the book, Kingdon sketches out the processes of public policy making and asks how and why certain ideas or policy proposals make onto the agenda of policymakers. Kingdon identifies three major streams (problems, policies, and politics) that need to be coupled in order for an item to be on the agenda.

    The problem stream is the first, and perhaps the most important. Policymakers and the public must identify an issue as a problem, before it can arrive on the legislative agenda. Unlike a condition, a problem is something that we feel compelled to address. So, the question is, is the historical and future decline of coal in WV a ‘problem’ that requires action or is it condition we put up with like bad weather or fanaticism.

    Only time will tell, but it is nice to see more people identifying this as a problem. Once you get legislators and others to admit, much like climate change, that there is a problem the faster we can move to take action to remedy the problem – like joining the six states out west that have mineral trust funds, which ensure that the economic benefit that a state acquires from natural resource extraction will not decline along with the natural resources themselves.

  2. CA Native says:

    The leaders in Appalachia are not doing their constituents any favors by resisting the trend toward renewable energy because it all comes down to the demand side of the supply and demand equation.

    Fact: Solar energy is really beginning to take hold here in CA. For example, our high school district (5 schools) installed solar panels in the parking lots. They look like huge carports that have the added benefit of protecting the cars from the elements.

    Here’s the punch line: The district will save 1 million dollars a year on their energy bill. That’s significant!

    City Halls, Colleges & Universities are installing. Even the cemetery… who knew a cemetery would need so much energy, but my guess is they are selling they energy back to the utility company. Google just announced it will invest “$75 million to help homeowners hook into the power of the sun, making the company’s total contribution pile to clean energy a whopping $850 million.”

    Yes, the days of coal are indeed numbered – and, c’mon now, it’s not Obama’s fault! Blame it on the fact that a good number of people are concerned about Climate Change. Just check into the background of people who do not believe in Climate Change, and you’ll quickly connect the dots to non-renewable energy.

    I live in the Santa Clara Valley, which was primarily agriculture when I was growing up. Now, it’s known as Silicon Valley, and high tech is the product. Appalachia, I pray you will elect visionary leaders who have your best interests at heart. Leaders who will help you transition into a new economy because it’s game over for coal.

  3. PJD says:

    Deflecting the blame onto “big government” and the “environmentalists” instead of resource depletion, will become an increasingly important and effective tool in keeping unemployed miners and their family’s discontent from being directed at the mine operators. It works every time.

  4. Steve says:

    Is this the same Dept. of Energy who pushed for over 500 million in tax payer loans to Solyndra? You all have heard about that green energy company haven’t you? If they were wrong on Solyndra, what makes them so right on the amount of coal available to mine? Is the lack of coal a problem, condition or fabrication? Yes, California may be way ahead on solar panels but so are their power bills. Compare the average electric bill in CA. to WV. and prepare for a real shock. No pun intended.

  5. Walt Auvil says:

    At the risk of violating this blog’s comment abuse policy (again) coal owns WV politicians, Democratic and Republican, with a few proud exceptions. Rather than lead, they follow. The coal industry has no interest in awakening the population of WV to the future, so neither do the politicians.

  6. Boi Webb says:

    As witnessed by comments on this blog some folks are simply not willing to face the reality of coal depletion in Central Appalachia. We must be willing to move forward or be left behind. The coal industry as a whole has had a great run in WV for more than a century. It seems to me they should now be willing to help lead WV toward a new renewable energy based economy. A wind farm on Coal River Mountian would be a good place to start. Underground mining with wind and solar projects in the mix would attract new investors while at the same time create new jobs.

  7. coalfire says:

    I really do not know where they get thier figures from. Coal companies today are investing in large blocks of coal. In 20 to 30 years maybe, not three. Look at the large underground operations that are being put in across WV. They are 20+ years of mining.

  8. Vickie says:

    Steve, as has been pointed out countless times before, the only reason coal-based electricity is less expensive is because of the societal costs that aren’t reflected in its price: like health problems, premature deaths, ecosystem damage, greenhouse gases, etc. If those costs were “internalized,” cleaner forms of electricity would be much more competitive price-wise.

  9. CA Native says:

    The answer is no, it’s not too late to prepare for the coal industry’s collapse. Why can’t Appalachia be the main hub for clean energy production?

    10/03/2011 – Chevron, the second-largest U.S. oil company, began extracting crude oil from a Southern California field using steam produced by a 29-megawatt solar- thermal power plant.

    BrightSource Energy’s system uses mirrors to focus sunlight on a boiler at Chevron’s Coalinga enhanced oil recovery project, the Oakland-based solar company said in a statement after extraction began Monday.

    Solar-thermal technology companies such as Oakland-based BrightSource are targeting industrial users in the oil-recovery and food-processing industries as well as power generation.

    “This technology has the potential to augment gas-powered steam generation and may provide an additional resource in areas of the world where natural gas is expensive or not readily available,” Chevron Technology Ventures President Desmond King said Monday in a company statement. The project generates about the same amount of steam as one gas-fired steam generator, Chevron said.

    Paris-based Areva’s Areva Solar, Seville, Spain-based Abengoa, Erlangen, Germany-based Solar Millennium and Burbank-based eSolar are competing with BrightSource with their own solar-thermal technology.

    The Coalinga plant consists of 3,822 mirror systems, or heliostats, each with two 10- by 7-foot mirrors mounted on a 6-foot steel pole focusing light on a 327- foot solar tower. Steam created by the heat is fed into the oil reservoir, making it easier to bring crude to the surface.

  10. Steve says:

    I have no problem at all with a wind farm on coal river. I believe if it were so profitable they would be all over the place. I have no problem with oil companies using steam produced from solar to help drive the oil rigs in CA.. All these things are fine and dandy, but we are consuming way more electricity today than we were just thirty years ago. In the early 80’s the average home had only two electronic devices. Who knows how many devices homes have today. The population of the world is growing at an astounding rate and countries are demanding more and more energy. Does anyone here really believe that we can drive this country’s great industries, schools, hospitals and homes with wind and solar? Solar and wind simply put, can’t keep up. Just a side note, but I believe CA. has a lot more sunny days than WV.

  11. ekymtngrrl says:

    Good post Ken! (and Ted) The AP story got a lot of play including front page of Lexington Herald Leader and Letcher Co’s Mountain Eagle. I agree with you that there was too much complaining about over regulation but the gist of the story — that the resource is running out — was there. I hope the light bulb (which up to now can only be conceived of as being powered by coal) is starting to light up with our Friends of Coal

  12. Taylor says:

    Does anyone here really believe that fossil fuels are going to last forever? *We have no choice* but to figure out different methods of generating electricity. In view of all the problems caused by doing it with coal, it’s a no-brainer that we should get on with it sooner rather than later.

  13. Miner2049er says:

    Regarding jobs, (Powder River Basin) PRB coal is always singled out for providing fewer jobs per ton than Appalachian underground mines. And in Appalachia, there’s overwhelming push to restrict such practices used in PRB, which are efficient and maximize recovery of the resource. Does anyone ever consider how many tons per acre are coming out of coal mines (surface or underground)? If you have 500 acres in WV, you might have up to 10-million tons of coal resource in several seams of varying thickness. Forcing an underground operation to go into that 500 acres may result in only getting the thickest coal seam (usually just one seam), thereby physically and/or economically sterilizing the rest (for today, anyhow). This is a 10% recovery of the resource, versus nearly 80% recovery by methods employed in PRB. When are the dialogues over responsible land use and responsible resource use going to meet and engage in the discussion over sterilization of reserves? Energy and environment aside, the world will always need coal, how then do we make the most of what we have? For all of the apparent benefits underground appears to offer today, it’s the worst for recovery.

  14. mike4352 says:

    ekymtngrrl says:
    October 4, 2011 at 9:07 pm
    Good post Ken! (and Ted) The AP story got a lot of play including front page of Lexington Herald Leader and Letcher Co’s Mountain Eagle. I agree with you that there was too much complaining about over regulation but the gist of the story — that the resource is running out — was there. I hope the light bulb (which up to now can only be conceived of as being powered by coal) is starting to light up with our Friends of Coal


    Many “friends of coal” DO understand this … matter of fact, alot of them (including me) have posted numerous times that Anti-MTR folks are not focusing their efforts in a critical area … that is, calling for Economic Diversification.

    I promise you, you spur the State govt to pass some tax laws, and some tort reform in order to be MUCH more attractive to business, and work to create a business environment second to none, alot of folks who are currently on the side of coal, purely for the reasons of “jobs” are gonna switch sides.

    As it is, having the money to feed your family, to keep them alive tomorrow is ALWAYS going to trump what might happen in 10-20 years due to pollution. That is human nature.

    Until the State decides to become a place where business WANT to be, coal will reign supreme. The only reason COAL companies are even here is because this is where the coal is … otherwise they wouldn’t be here either.

  15. mike4352 says:

    BTW … we’re ranked 46 in “REgulatory climate ” … which is what our government can most directly effect.

    This is defined as … Measures regulatory and tort climate, incentives, government integrity, transportation and bond ratings.

    Fixing ths will go along way to moving our economy away from king coal.

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