Coal Tattoo

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.