Here’s hoping: How coal boosters hold W.Va. back

April 28, 2014 by Ken Ward Jr.

Coals War

We’ve written many times on this blog about the industry-driven “war on coal” propaganda campaign, as well as about how West Virginia political leaders fall right in line with it, refusing for the most part to question the narrative — or to take the sorts of steps that might help our coalfield communities better deal with the changing energy landscape, and coal’s inevitable decline.

It’s important to remember, though, that much of West Virginia’s media coverage plays right into this as well, perpetuating the many coal industry myths that hold our state back. The latest example came last week, with a nonsensical commentary by West Virginia MetroNews personality Hoppy Kercheval. Hoppy picked up on two news stories — the potential for significant layoffs at two Patriot Coal complexes in Boone County and the announcement of a new natural gas power plant in Marshall County — and turned it into another of his inconsistent rants about the supposed magic of markets and the non-existent invisible hand.

Here’s what I mean. Hoppy opines:

hoppyOne common refrain during discussions about coal’s decline is, “We have to diversify our economy.”  But who is this omniscient “we”? Economies do not respond well to central planning.  The marketplace provides for the willing and efficient exchange of goods and services that creates wealth and spurs economic growth.

True, government provides the necessary infrastructure, but it’s notoriously bad at picking winners and losers.   For example, West Virginia didn’t plan to suddenly create a booming natural gas industry; entrepreneurs utilizing the new hydraulic fracturing technique moved to where the gas was located.

Sounds like Hoppy is taking some courses at the Koch brothers-backed WVU Center for Free Enterprise, doesn’t it? But his analysis just doesn’t add up. Readers and listeners deserve a more honest appraisal of this situation.

For example, when Hoppy writes that,  “West Virginia didn’t plan to suddenly create a booming natural gas industry; entrepreneurs utilizing the new hydraulic fracturing technique moved to where the gas was located,”  he leaves out the part where the federal government spent a ton of our tax dollars to help develop the technologies being used to drill and produce natural gas from the Marcellus Shale.

Hoppy also leaves out the fact that natural gas development — like the big cracker plant proposed for Wood county — isn’t happening without the help of some pretty significant tax breaks (the kind of “central planning” boogeyman that Hoppy wants to criticize) pushed for by the governor and legislative leaders. Not for nothing, but the coal industry Hoppy loves so much is also the recipient of major tax breaks that continue to drain the state’s budget and prompt cuts in crucial government services for our most needy.

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Make no mistake. Huge layoffs at those two Patriot operations would be a terrible blow not only for the families of those directly employed there, but for the surrounding communities. Anyone who cheers the thought of a neighbor losing their job has an odd way of supporting labor.

But in his commentary, Hoppy tries again to give residents the false hope that another coal boom might just be right around the corner, with the unspoken thought being that boom is coming, if only we all work hard enough to beat back President Obama and his efforts to address global warming, mountaintop removal pollution, and even coal mine safety problems:

Coal, like other commodities, is subject to the price swings of the boom-bust cycle.  Historically, those who depend directly and indirectly on the coal industry have been buoyed during lean times by the anticipation of an eventual upward trend.

Here’s hoping, for the sake of Boone County and the rest of the Appalachian coal region, that the industry is not on a permanent downward glide path.

Of course, there’s little reason to believe that the Southern West Virginia coal decline is not a permanent downward path. But that’s nothing new, and it’s certainly not President Obama’s fault.  Just look at what the U.S. Bureau of Mines was projecting for Boone County’s coal industry way back in 1995, when agency researchers projected that the area would be able to sustain coal-mining for only another 20 years:

But the most depressing thing about the way Hoppy tries to spin this commentary is this business about what he calls the “omniscient” ‘we'”.

I’m not sure what that even means. But it goes right along with the typical view of folks who want to pretend that collective efforts to improve our communities, undertaken by governments we elect, in partnership with citizen groups, labor unions, business leaders, academics and who knows who else are somehow wrong — that these efforts somehow undermine our freedom, rather than making that freedom stronger.

There are plenty of good people trying to get West Virginians talking about all of the things we can be, instead of simply yelling and screaming about one of the things that we are, or fantasizing about some future that simply isn’t going to happen. It’s a shame that Hoppy — with a big megaphone of a statewide talk show — doesn’t want to be one of them.

4 Responses to “Here’s hoping: How coal boosters hold W.Va. back”

  1. Ted Boettner says:

    It’s also important to mention that Kentucky has started to move beyond the ‘war on coal’ trope and toward making progress about how eastern Kentucky will diversify its economy from its dying coal economy through its bi-partisan SOAR initiative (see here: http://governor.ky.gov/soar/Pages/default.aspx)

    To my knowledge, the UMWA hasn’t countered the false “war on coal” narrative nor have they expressed interest in trying to have a conversation about how to deal with declining coal in the region. Very disappointing.

    Ironically, the decline in expensive central Appalachian coal in southern WV is directly related to the shale development in the northern part of the state – which appears to be getting a new natural gas electric power plant. You cannot be 100 percent for coal and 100 percent for shale development. It is a zero sum game.

  2. William Glasser says:

    Coal has its place.

    West Virginia coal competes not just with other energy sources but with other coal.

    1. Versus other coal, West Virginia coal is more difficult to mine. The easy to get to coal in West Virginia has nearly all been mined. Overburden on remaining West Virginia coal is deep, difficult to remove and difficult to manage after the fact.

    2. Versus other coal, West Virginia coal is, on average, of lower BTU’s. You get less energy per ton of coal from West Virginia coal. Not what you want in a competitive energy market.

    3. In the “change or die” world we live in, “Hoppy” and the coal companies have chosen not to change at every opportunity. Facing the choice of investing in alternative coal uses (e.g., gasoline), or spending their capital and credibility to deny coal’s negative environmental impacts, they came up with the “war on coal.” That’s right the “war on coal” is not a government initiative; it is a contrivance of the coal companies and their supporters (“Hoppy) to preserve the status quo.

    4. The need to move coal to other uses and to move to a mixture of energy sources has been known since at least the 1940’s. Coal companies and their supporters stubbornly have not just resisted change they have denied the obvious need for change.

    Again, in a “change or die” world, not a viable strategy for the long run.

    Thanks for the thoughtful, well-done piece, Ken.

    WW GLASSER

  3. Hoppy writes, “Here’s hoping, for the sake of Boone County and the rest of the Appalachian coal region, that the industry is not on a permanent downward glide path.”

    Considering the HUGE chunk of advertising revenue the West Virginia Radio Corporation must receive from the coal industry, I imagine Hoppy wouldn’t hope for anything else. But the writing is on the wall, and for that I genuinely feel sorry for the good folks of Boone County and anywhere else in Appalachia where the economy is so inextricably intertwined with coal.

    I am reminded, again and again, of those old Walker Machinery billboards that read, “Yes, COAL. Clean, carbon-neutral COAL.” The whole idea was that coal could indeed be environmentally friendly thanks to technologies like carbon capture and storage (CCS). But you don’t see those old billboards anymore, because the industry realized that implementing CCS would be one thing: EXPENSIVE.

  4. Dan Taylor says:

    “Anyone who cheers the thought of a neighbor losing their job has an odd way of supporting labor.”

    I completely agree, but would add that coal companies who have been forced to close operations in the past due to litigation should do a better job of obeying the law. If they did this, there would never be a reason to take them to court and for them to lose again and again, because endangering the health and environment of West Virginia citizens does have consequences.

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