Coal Tattoo

Coal, politics and the Detroit bankruptcy

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Sometimes the political discussion around coal and energy policy here in West Virginia is simply baffling. While it’s easy to understand why rank-and-file coal miners and other working people are concerned about the future of the coalfields, it’s difficult to fathom the direction that Appalachian political leaders seem intent on going just about anytime the topic comes up.

Take today’s legislative interim meeting of the Joint Commission on Economic Development.

Lawmakers were being briefed by Jeff Herholdt, director of the Division of Energy, about his agency’s state Energy Plan. Now, never mind that the plan itself was finished in early March, and lawmakers are just getting around to talking about it.  And don’t worry about whether the plan really takes into account the threats of climate change and how our energy system contributes to that crisis — because, of course, Mr. Herholdt is a climate science denier who isn’t convinced human activity is really part of the problem. And it’s not worth looking at some of the interesting stuff in the energy plan — like the finding that West Virginia “has fallen behind its regional counterparts in terms of addressing its energy consumption through energy efficiency policy.”

What this meeting was all about was coal, and what the state should do to try to blunt the impact of what the industry continues to insist is the Obama administration’s “war on coal.”

And even within this discussion, it is always important to not let too many facts get in the way. For example, lawmakers didn’t seem to interested in Mr. Herholdt’s statement that most of the coal-fired power plants in West Virginia are “in better shape than other states” to comply with most of the new U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regulations.  What lawmakers really wanted to focus on were things like what Herholdt said were the Tomblin administration’s efforts “to change the direction of this country as far as the use of coal.” Herholdt said:

What’s not happening is getting the bigger picture issues resolved with coal.

And while that’s certainly true — there isn’t much happening on the state level regarding the “bigger picture issues” like reducing greenhouse emissions, addressing public health impacts of mountaintop removal or ending black lung disease — I’m not sure those sorts of things were what Jeff Herholdt had in mind.

No, state leaders are more focused on the sorts of things that had Sen. Ron Stollings upset when he heard that some of the utility plants in West Virginia don’t burn 100 percent West Virginia-produced coal. Or why, as Sen. Art Kirkendoll wondered aloud, the state isn’t out raising money to fund construction of a coal-to-liquids plant.

We heard precious little discussion about how state officials could try to work with EPA to soften the blow from the inevitable regulations to limit carbon dioxide emissions from existing coal-fired power plants.

It reminded me of part of a recent column that economist Paul Krugman had in the New York Times under the headline Detroit, the New Greece:

So was Detroit just uniquely irresponsible? Again, no. Detroit does seem to have had especially bad governance, but for the most part the city was just an innocent victim of market forces.

What? Market forces have victims? Of course they do. After all, free-market enthusiasts love to quote Joseph Schumpeter about the inevitability of “creative destruction” — but they and their audiences invariably picture themselves as being the creative destroyers, not the creatively destroyed. Well, guess what: Someone always ends up being the modern equivalent of a buggy-whip producer, and it might be you.

Sometimes the losers from economic change are individuals whose skills have become redundant; sometimes they’re companies, serving a market niche that no longer exists; and sometimes they’re whole cities that lose their place in the economic ecosystem. Decline happens.

The column went on:

So by all means let’s have a serious discussion about how cities can best manage the transition when their traditional sources of competitive advantage go away. And let’s also have a serious discussion about our obligations, as a nation, to those of our fellow citizens who have the bad luck of finding themselves living and working in the wrong place at the wrong time — because, as I said, decline happens, and some regional economies will end up shrinking, perhaps drastically, no matter what we do.

The important thing is not to let the discussion get hijacked, Greek-style. There are influential people out there who would like you to believe that Detroit’s demise is fundamentally a tale of fiscal irresponsibility and/or greedy public employees. It isn’t. For the most part, it’s just one of those things that happens now and then in an ever-changing economy.

Shouldn’t West Virginia be having a serious conversation about the future of coal and of coalfield communities? Or should that discussion continue to be hijacked by the “war on coal” crowd that just wants to bash President Obama for their own political and economic gain? West Virginia is in the midst of a major economic transition, and our state leaders seem intent on doing nothing to try to manage that change.