Coal Tattoo

Bad news keeps coming for coal industry

FILE - In this March 28, 2007 file photo, lignite coal is mined at the Freedom Mine in Beulah, N.D. Sixteen years after North Dakota agreed to finance research aimed at revitalizing growth in the state's lignite industry, only one project has been built while other proposals that promised jobs and increased state tax revenue resulted in little more than multimillion-dollar studies that failed to find a clean and cost-effective use for the plentiful but low-grade coal. (AP Photo/James MacPherson, File)

In this March 28, 2007 file photo, lignite coal is mined at the Freedom Mine in Beulah, N.D.  (AP Photo/James MacPherson, File)

Earlier this week, The Associated Press put this out as big news:

Natural gas overtook coal as the top source of United States electric power generation for the first time ever this spring, a milestone that has been in the making for years as the price of gas slides and new regulations make coal riskier for power generators.

Unfortunately, in some ways, the AP story (largely a rewrite of an earlier SNL piece)  buried some relevant context:

The EIA said in a May report that it expects the level of coal-generated electricity to rebound as natural gas prices rise later this year and coal-fired plants return from spring maintenance. Overall, the EIA expects about 36 percent of total U.S. electricity generation to come from coal in 2015 and 31 percent to come from natural gas.

The Guardian had some interesting thoughts on this:

In April a glut of fracked gas from new shale regions drove the price of gas down to just $2.50/million Btu (British thermal unit, a widely-used measure of energy), a 35% drop since February. This oversupply, combined with a routine seasonal shut down of coal plants, caused gas production to creep above coal for the first time.

“Power generators often use the spring months to take their plants offline for maintenance, especially coal plants. This maintenance period happened to coincide with a period of very low natural gas [prices],” said Tyler Hodge who works on the EIA’s Short-Term Energy Outlook.

Hodge said gas prices were expected to rise again in the coming months, and coal would reassert itself at the top of the production table when plants fire up again for the winter.

The back and forth is probably going to continue, but as we’ve reported here before, the long-term picture is not so good for coal, especially in Southern West Virginia.

Coal’s broader problems were made clear again today with a couple of interesting developments.

First, there was this announcement from Walter Energy:

Walter Energy, Inc.  today announced that it has entered into an agreement with certain of its senior lenders on the material terms of a restructuring. To implement this pre-negotiated restructuring, Walter Energy and its U.S. subsidiaries have filed for relief under chapter 11 of the U.S. Bankruptcy Code in the Bankruptcy Court for the Northern District of Alabama. Walter Energy’s non-U.S. operations, including those in Canada and the U.K., are not included in the filings.

There’s more about this (with commentary from SNL’s Taylor Kuykendall, here. Keep in mind that Walter’s focus is mining of steel-making coal. The UMWA, which represents Walter miners in Alabama, said:

The Chapter 11 bankruptcy filing by Walter Energy is yet another indication of just how troubled the American coal industry is today. Walter does not produce coal for the energy market; it mines metallurgical-grade coal that is a raw material in steel production. Increasing competition from other countries in a shrinking worldwide steel market has caused metallurgical coal prices to plunge to levels not seen for years.

Second, there was this announcement from the Sierra Club:

Alliant Energy, a major Iowa utility, has committed to phase out coal use at six of its plants in the state, marking the 200th coal plant to shut down in the United States.  This marks a milestone in the country’s transition to clean energy and underscores Iowa’s growth as a clean energy state. The announced coal plant retirements are the result of the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign advocacy, which has been a driving force in the national transition to renewable sources of power. The retirement of 200 coal plants nationwide represents the phase out of nearly 40 percent of the 523 U.S. coal plants that were in operation just five years ago. The work of Sierra Club and more than 100 allied organizations to retire these plants and replace them with clean energy has enabled the United States to lead the industrialized world in cutting global warming pollution, and has put the White House on firm footing to push for a strong international climate accord in Paris at the end of this year.

The Sierra Club added:

As coal plants are retiring at record rates, states are also making major investments in wind and solar power, fueling the transition to a clean energy economy. Iowa, for example, already generates more than a quarter of the energy powering homes and businesses from wind farms, ranking first in the nation in power generated by wind. Nearly 7,000 Iowans are now employed in the fast-growing wind energy sector, more than any other state, and Iowa has the potential to generate 100 times its current wind energy output. Iowa provides a model for neighboring states to phase out coal and capitalize on clean energy, which can also be a cost-efficient and commonsense way to meet the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s forthcoming Clean Power Plan requirements.   

 Recognizing that coal is dirty, unnecessary and increasingly uneconomical, smart utility and energy companies are transitioning to cleaner, renewable sources of energy. Clean energy sources like wind and solar have increased four-fold since 2005, as the prices for clean energy have plummeted.


FILE- In this April 3, 2014, file photo, giant machines dig for brown coal at the open-cast mining Garzweiler near the city of Grevenbroich, western Germany. A global health commission organized by the prestigious British medical journal Lancet recommended in a report published Monday, June 22, 2015, substituting cleaner energy worldwide for coal will reduce air pollution and give Earth a better chance at avoiding dangerous climate change. (AP Photo/Martin Meissner, File)

In this April 3, 2014, file photo, giant machines dig for brown coal at the open-cast mining Garzweiler near the city of Grevenbroich, western Germany.  (AP Photo/Martin Meissner, File)

Over at Vox, Brad Plumer has a piece out titled, “The most important climate story today is the global coal renaissance.” He reports:

If you only focused on the United States, you might think coal’s days are numbered.

The dirtiest of all fossil fuels once provided more than half of America’s electricity. That has since dropped to 39 percent, thanks to competition from cheap natural gas, a dogged campaign by the Sierra Club to shutter old coal plants, and strict new air pollution regulations. Add in the Obama administration’s upcoming crackdown on CO2 emissions from power plants, and US coal will keep declining in the future.

But that’s not true globally. Far from it. According to data from BP’s Statistical Review of Energy, coal consumption has actually been accelerating worldwide since the end of the 1990s … It’s tempting to think that this worldwide coal boom is mainly a one-time blip due to China, where coal use has surged since 2000 but has since leveled off as the country transitions away from heavy industry. But as it turns out, that’s not true either.

According to an important new study in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, we’re in the midst of a global “renaissance of coal” that’s not confined to just a few countries like China or India. Rather, coal is becoming the energy source of choice for a vast array of poorer and fast-growing countries around the world, particularly in Southeast Asia. “This renaissance of coal,” the authors write, “has even accelerated in the last decade.”

Why is coal becoming so popular? The authors of the PNAS study — Jan Christoph Steckel, Ottmar Edenhofer, and Michael Jakob — argue that coal is often the cheapest energy option for many people, relative to other sources like oil, gas, nuclear, or renewables.

What’s especially notable is that countries no longer need their own domestic mines to take advantage of coal power. International coal markets have become so robust, with exports surging in mining countries like Australia and Indonesia, that it’s become much easier for a wide variety of countries to build coal-fired power plants. (Notably, the authors say, the price of coal itself, rather than the capital costs of building power plants, seems to be the important economic driver here.)

Now, I can just hear Sen. Joe Manchin … “See, Ken, coal has been and always will be our most important global energy resource. If we can just that that darned EPA off our backs, West Virginia can power the world. That’s just common sense.”

Not so fast. Sen. Manchin should read this study:

If future economic growth of poor countries is fueled mainly by coal, ambitious mitigation targets very likely will become infeasible. Building new coal power plant capacities will lead to lock-in effects for the next few decades. If that lock-in is to be avoided, international climate policy must find ways to offer viable alternatives to coal for developing countries.

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A different kind of coalfield discussion

FILE - In this Jan. 20, 2015 file photo, Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., accompanied by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Ky., speaks during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington. Senate Republicans discussed a proposal Wednesday to temporarily help millions of people who could lose federal health care subsidies should the Supreme Court annul the aid, which has been a pillar of President Barack Obama’s health care law.  (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)

Earlier this week in Washington, they had another one of these congressional hearings that beltway insiders thrive on about coal and climate and economics.

West Virginia’s own Republican Sen. Shelley Moore Capito was there, chairing the meeting of a Senate Environment and Public Works Committee meeting called, “The Impacts of EPA’s proposed Carbon Regulations on Electricity Costs for American Businesses, Rural Communities and Families.” Sen. Capito opened the hearing by saying:

I am not exaggerating when I say almost every day back home in West Virginia, there are new stories detailing plants closed, jobs lost, and price increases … It is important to note that all electricity has to come from somewhere. In many states, odds are that it is being imported from a state that relies on coal.  But no one is talking about that. 

While Sen. Capito was leading this hearing, a relatively small, but dedicated bunch of officials from various government agencies were meeting back home in West Virginia. Here’s the lead of the story I wrote about that meeting:

A team of Obama administration officials visited West Virginia this week to promote new programs and proposals to help struggling mining communities and hear about ongoing efforts by a variety of local groups to diversify coalfield economies.

Representatives from the White House and a half-dozen agencies met with economic development officials from state agencies and with a long list of local and regional non-profit organizations for a briefing on President Obama’s proposal to provide hundreds of millions of dollars in coalfield aid as part of his 2016 budget recommendation to Congress.

About 75 people who attended the meeting at Hawks Nest State Park also heard about additional money available through an ongoing companion initiative to provide federal help for local economic development planning and project implementation in communities around the country hit by layoffs as part of the coal industry’s downturn.

Now, a lot of this meeting focused on the ins-and-outs of the Obama programs, and the details of grant application rules and, frankly, a lot of stuff that, while not very sexy, plays a huge rule in how non-profit groups and others can go about creating bottom-up change in our society.  And, a lot of it also highlighted the growing efforts that go on — often without headlines, at least here in Charleston — of local citizens and leaders to try to build stronger communities in our coalfields. The first lesson I learned at this meeting is how much those of us who live in the state Capitol need to do more to understand and encourage such efforts.

But the first thing I saw when I got back to Charleston and started browsing the news was the headline from Inside Climate News: Aid Package for Coal Country Goes Ignored by Congress. They reported:

A massive $3 billion package to help struggling coal communities transition to a new economy is sitting unappropriated in the Republican-led Congress. And lawmakers are saying little—at least publicly—about if and how they ever plan to support it.

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What’s driving the decline of coal?

In this Sept.  26, 2011 file photo, raw coal from a coal mine pours off of a conveyer belt, near Trinidad, Colo.  (Mark Reis/The Gazette via AP, File)

Here’s the latest from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Energy Information Administration (see page 8):

EIA expects a 7% decrease in coal consumption in the electric power sector in 2015, despite a 1% increase in total electric power generation. Lower natural gas prices are the main driver of the decline. Projected low natural gas prices make it more economical to run natural gas-fired generating units at higher utilization rates even in regions of the country (Midwest, South) that typically rely more heavily on coal-fired generation. Increased generation from wind, solar, and biomass is also expected to displace coal-fired generation, as several biomass facilities have been converted from coal-burning facilities. The retirements of coal power plants in response to the implementation of the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards also reduce coal demand in the power sector in 2015. The full effect of the coal plant retirements on capacity will be felt in 2016, but projected rising electricity demand and higher natural gas prices are expected to contribute to higher utilization rates among the remaining coal-fired fleet. Coal consumption in the electric power sector is forecast to increase slightly in 2016.


A C.S.X. train loaded with coal winds its way into the mountains in this Nov. 21, 2004 file photo taken near the New River at Cotton Hill in Fayette County, W.Va.  (AP Photo/Jeff Gentner)

The latest coal production forecast is out from West Virginia University’s Bureau for Business and Economic Research, and the news isn’t good:

West Virginia’s coal industry has seen production decline significantly over the past several years. After climbing to nearly 158 million short tons in 2008, the state’s coal mine output has tumbled in each successive year to an annual total of approximately 115 million short tons in 20141─or a cumulative decline of 27 percent. The overall rate of decline was much smaller during 2014, as mines in the state produced roughly 0.8 percent fewer tons of coal in comparison to 2013. Unfortunately, however, this slower rate of decline is expected to be temporary and preliminary data already indicate mine output fell 4 percent on a year-over-year basis during the first quarter of 2015 to an annualized rate of 110 million short tons.

While coal production within West Virginia has declined rapidly over the past several years, the downward trend in statewide production has been much more significant when compared to most of the nation’s other major coal-producing regions. Aggregate non-West Virginia coal production in the US was estimated to have increased 1.7 percent during calendar year 2014, leaving it at about 87 percent of production levels achieved during 2008. As a result, this has caused West Virginia’s market share of total U.S. coal tonnage to fall appreciably over the past several years, retreating from 13.5 percent in 2008 to 11.5 percent in 2014.

 Why is this happening?

The fall-off in the state’s coal production has been driven by a combination of weak export demand, declining domestic use of coal in electricity generation, changes in emissions compliance standards for utilities and increasingly challenging geologic conditions in Southern West Virginia.

The short-term forecast:

The baseline forecast calls for state coal production to decline to approximately 104 million short tons in calendar year 2015 before contracting further to 98 million short tons in 2016. Numerous factors are expected to weigh on West Virginia coal production over the next two years, with declines likely in both the state’s northern and southern coalfields. After replenishing their coal stockpiles following an extremely cold first quarter of 2014, inventories of coal at electric utilities grew appreciably over the latter half of the year and have stayed at relatively high levels through the first several months of 2015 due to increased use of natural gas. Utilities are expected to draw down from existing stockpiles slowly in 2015, which will weigh heavily on thermal coal production. Domestic industrial use and export demand for coal are also expected to remain weak during the next two years.

And the long-term forecast:

Coal production in West Virginia is expected to rebound moderately between 2017 and 2020, rising to an annual average of nearly 105 million tons in 2020. Retirements of coal-fired generation will taper off and, while no measurable amount of capacity additions to the coal-fired fleet are likely, an expected increase in natural gas prices should allow coal to regain some share of electricity generation. For the remainder of the outlook period, statewide coal production is expected to fall, contracting to less than 96 million short tons in 2035. This will be driven entirely by losses in production in the state’s southern coalfields. Northern West Virginia production will likely experience a solid rebound through 2020 that will then remain relatively stable level over the remaining portion of the forecast.

14_0395_02That’s a map that appeared this week as part of a U.S. Centers for Disease Control study that looked at the “most distinctive causes of death” in each state across the country.  The Washington Post had a write-up on this here, which is where I first saw the map and the study.

The concept is to pinpoint the cause of death for each state that, as the Post explained is the cause of death that stands out most relative to its national average.

Click to enlarge the list with the map, and you’ll see that for West Virginia, the most distinctive cause of death is “Pneumoconioses and chemical effects.”  That’s right, the cause of death that stands out in West Virginia relative to its national average is black lung  — the terrible disease that we know how to eliminate, but don’t because doing so might cost the coal industry too much money.

But gosh, if you follow what our elected officials are doing in Washington, or read what the leaders of our state’s media establishment are opining about, you would barley know that the coal industry hurts anybody in any way.  What West Virginia really needs, these folks keep telling us, is not better regulation of coal and creation of a broad new range of diverse industries and economies, but more coal. Lots more coal. And, they tell us, if we can just stop President Obama and his EPA, we’ll have more coal.

Take Hoppy Kercheval’s commentary today for West Virginia Metronews. In a nutshell, Hoppy argues that the absolute last thing West Virginia needs is any federal money or other assistance to find ways to diversify the state’s southern coalfields. Hoppy is apparently totally against the Obama administration’s efforts in the federal budget and with administration agency programs to give those coal communities help that they desperately need:

Washington’s answer is to throw some hush money at the problem.  This year, the POWER initiative will award grants using $28 to $38 million to pay for “planning and preparation” for the post-coal era.  The administration promises more money in future years, but that’s uncertain.

Obama supporters and a few desperate souls will appreciate Washington’s benevolence, cheering the federal government’s attempts to foster the long-desired “economic diversity” the state needs.  And it’s possible that the POWER creators actually believe central planning and yet another underutilized job retraining program will help.

Even if Washington’s efforts are in good faith, they pale when compared with the damage done by the administration’s policies. It’s as though the White House stabbed the coal industry in the heart with the right hand, while the left hand offers a tissue to help clean up the mess.

As we discussed yesterday, what Hoppy and his buddies among the state’s career campaign consultants really want is to be able to run Republican candidates in 2016 in another anti-Obama campaign:

What POWER will do is give the national Democratic Party some cover, a useful political diversion.  Federal Democratic candidates campaigning in coal country in 2016 can try to temper the impact of the EPA’s decisions by pointing to ways Washington is helping to, according to the White House, “build a better future.”

If politicians really wanted to help they would reign in the EPA and/or spend money on badly needed infrastructure. But that’s not going to happen, at least not with this administration or with the current direction of the national Democratic Party.

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The ‘dominant narrative’ about coal’s decline

It was interesting to watch this piece from VICE News about the campaign for West Virginia’s 3rd Congressional District, especially the footage of this comment from longtime Rep. Nick J. Rahall:

Coal is everything to our state of West Virginia … I have always stood for coal, am standing for coal, and will always stand for coal … Yeah, coal is in a slump now. But coal is going to come back.

I’d like to believe that Rep. Rahall knows better, that he understands well that the Obama administration isn’t the only pressure on Southern West Virginia coal, and that regardless of whether he and other opponents win their fight with the U.S. EPA, another boom in our southern coalfields simply isn’t just around the corner  (see also here).

The piece goes on to report:

… The dominant narrative around here is that Obama’s stringent regulations — thus his “war on coal” —  are to blame for the loss of coal mining jobs.

It does include this further context:

In reality, the downturn is largely due to dwindling reserves, the rise of natural gas, and the automation of the mining industry, which has replaced workers with machines.

But that’s just a mention, almost in passing, in a nearly 15-minute piece that is mostly about this “dominant narrative.” So you have to wonder, why is the “war on coal” the dominant narrative. Of course, it’s partly because of the huge advertising campaign from the mining industry. But it’s also because that’s the way the national and local media keep framing things.

There’s another example out there today in this Associated Press dispatch:

LOGAN, W.Va. (AP) — The president of the West Virginia Coal Association reports a decrease in the number of coal mining sites in the state.

Bill Raney says the state has 96 active mining sites, down from 152 in 2013 and 184 in 2012. Media outlets report that Raney attributes the decline to uncertainty created by President Barack Obama’s administration.

Raney also says the industry is seeing a shift in production from mines in southern West Virginia to northern West Virginia. He attributes that to the scrubber technology added to northern power plants during the 1990s which enabled them to burn high-sulfur coal found in northern West Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Ohio.

That story, apparently picked up from the Logan Banner and WVOW-FM in Logan, will likely run in every paper in West Virginia, over the weekend before Tuesday’s general election.  And look at that sentence I put in bold type:

Media outlets report that Raney attributes the decline to uncertainty created by President Barack Obama’s administration.

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It’s been about 15 years ago now. I was at an environmental journalism conference, attending a lunch session about climate change that included representatives of some of the big national and international environmental groups, along with a few industry people and some scientists.  The environmental groups were, of course, rightly making their case — as they continue to today —  that urgent action was needed to deal with carbon dioxide emissions

This was a long time ago and I was younger and probably even dumber than I am now. But I tried several times to engage these folks about what they thought a national climate policy should include in the way of economic, educational, or other help for coalfield communities where any mandated reduction in greenhouse gas emissions would almost certainly mean a significant decrease in about the only kind of good-paying jobs around.

Well, you would have thought I was from Mars. I mean, some folks were reasonably arguing that they were environmental groups. It was their job to work to protect the environment, public health and all that stuff. Their role in the process wasn’t to develop economic transition policies. They weren’t against those things necessarily. It just wasn’t their passion, and they didn’t think it was their job. But some folks were more hostile to my queries. They lectured me about how evil coal-mining was, and how they just didn’t understand why anyone in West Virginia wouldn’t welcome a complete end to the practice. Those folks had never been here. They certainly hadn’t been to a coal mine. They never came out and said so, but I certainly walked away feeling like they didn’t really care much what happened in places like Logan County, W.Va., as long as they got some sort of climate policy enacted.

I’ve been replaying those discussions a little in my mind this morning, and looking back at a piece that David Roberts wrote for Grist called, Should the feds bail out coal miners?  The piece was a follow-up to an earlier post he wrote called Democrats: Coal Country is just not that into you.

Now, let me make a disclaimer: I don’t really know David Roberts. Never met him. I do read his stuff all the time — and I certainly envy his great adventure taking a year away from social media. I’m a fan of his work. And I’m absolutely not trying to say that David Roberts doesn’t care about people in places like Logan County. From what I read, he just doesn’t strike me as that kind of guy. Far from it.

But I found his piece yesterday to not be nearly as thoughtful as I’ve come to expect from him. As he said on Twitter, maybe that’s just because I disagree with him about it.  But he wrote himself that it was “all pretty cursory” and just “idle musings,” and that he hoped what he wrote would get a discussion going. You should go read what he wrote, and maybe think about commenting.

David Roberts makes some good points. For example, he writes that some of the broad sort of New Deal programs that might really jump-start an economic transition in the Appalachian coalfields have little chance of getting through Congress right now. He points out that coal miners aren’t the only workers hurting in this country, and recommends broader programs that will help all workers, not just miners.

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Kentucky Weather

Snow falls in the downtown area of Maysville, Ky. Sunday, Dec. 8, 2013. (AP Photo/The Ledger Independent, Terry Prather)

Here’s how the Lexington Herald-Leader (which played no small role in pushing for this discussion, with its 50 Years of Night series) started its report from the SOAR meeting earlier this week:

Leaders grappling with a painful downturn in coal jobs in Eastern Kentucky got a primer Monday on how another state dealt with a similar collapse in its mining region.

The situation 30 years ago in the iron-ore belt in northeastern Minnesota was dire.

Mining jobs dropped by more than 60 percent in 18 months and people started moving out, at times stopping by the bank on the way out of town to drop off keys to houses and cars they couldn’t pay for, said Joe Sertich, a former community-college president in the region known as the Iron Range.

The Eastern Kentucky coalfield has been similarly battered by layoffs. The coal industry has cut 6,000 jobs since mid-2011, with some counties losing more than half the jobs that were once the bulwark of their economy …

The Iron Range had some things in place to deal with its downturn that Eastern Kentucky doesn’t, however.

One was the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board, which is headed by Sertich’s son, Tony, a former Minnesota state lawmaker who also spoke at Monday’s development summit.

The state had set the board up in the 1940s to promote investment and workforce development in its iron-ore region, so when the industry shriveled there was a panel in place to help guide a response.

The panel paid for short-term public-works projects to cushion the blow of mining losses — helping stem the population loss — then invested in longer-range efforts to attract new businesses and boost tourism and other sectors, Tony Sertich said.

Planners also brought better coordination to community colleges in the region and put more focus on technical education and training.

Sertich said the long-term effort has been successful. The unemployment rate in the region is about 6 percent, and there has been nearly $500 million in public and private investment in the region since 2010, which is projected to create more than 4,100 jobs, he said.

So it’s clear there is hope, and there are ways to move forward … it’s all a question of whether the people of the coalfields — and their political and business leaders — will help things along in that direction. This goes not only for Eastern Kentucky, but also here in West Virginia.

The big news here the last few days has been the naming of E. Gordon Gee as interim president of West Virginia University, and it’s an indication of how far West Virginia has to go in facing facts about the coal industry’s role in the state that so few mentions have been made of Gee’s connection to Massey Energy, where he served on the board and headed a key committee that was supposed to make sure Massey protected the environment an the health and safety of its workers. And look around to see how much media coverage West Virginia journalists gave to a major new report that re-examined the question of “Who Owns West Virginia?” and found coalfield landownership is still concentrated in the hands of a few large corporations.

In an editorial following the Kentucky Soar Summit, the Courier-Journal of Louisville noted that:

… The problems of Eastern Kentucky are stubborn and deep. They include generational poverty, high unemployment, low educational attainment, poor health and entrenched political corruption.Such problems will require a sustained effort to help the people of Eastern Kentucky, who account for about one-fifth of Kentucky’s population, become better educated, find meaningful employment and lead productive lives.

This event in Eastern Kentucky was far from perfect. The voices on the stage weren’t diverse enough. There was still too much talk about coal coming back, and not enough about other energy options. Young people — who have far more to lose in all of this than the rest of us — weren’t heard from nearly enough. But then there’s this, as noted by that Courier-Journal editorial:

Gov. Beshear was particularly blunt in calling for citizens and elected leaders to face reality about coal, once king in Eastern Kentucky but now a fading force in jobs and energy.

While coal has been a “foundation” of the region’s economy and remains important, “there should be no doubt in anyone’s mind that its role as an employer is reducing,” he said. “To ignore that is to blindfold ourselves and stick our heads in the sand.”

Gov. Beshear described as “urgent” the need to address challenges facing the region.

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Census Dying Counties

Over in Eastern Kentucky, a wide variety of citizens, business leaders and government officials are getting to work this morning, with the start of Shaping Our Appalachian Region, or SOAR, an event aimed at jump-starting discussions about how to improve the lives of the people of the coalfield region (watch live here). As the Lexington Herald-Leader explained this weekend:

The meeting Monday is part of that effort, started by Republican U.S. Rep. Harold “Hal” Rogers, whose 5th District includes the Eastern Kentucky coalfield, and Gov. Steve Beshear.

The two appointed a panel of more than 40 people — mostly business and education leaders — to help guide the process. The Rural Policy Research Institute is assisting.

People who attend the meeting will be able to submit suggestions for boosting the region’s economy, and there will be panels on entrepreneurship, tourism, lifelong learning, investment in the region and other issues. More than 1,500 people have registered, Beshear’s office said.

The summit is important, but it’s a beginning, not the end, Rogers said.

It will take hard work and time to accomplish whatever recommendations it produces, the 17-term congressman said.

“I hope that it’s the beginning of a long-term effort to revitalize the economy of that whole region,” Rogers said.

The Herald-Leader’s weekend editions had a two-day collection of essays focused on these sorts of discussions. The paper explained:

No one should expect an overnight transformation. But here you can read some interesting ideas for getting started.

We solicited a variety of viewpoints, and the response was so strong we have an overflow of commentaries to publish in coming weeks.

A place and people whose back-breaking work and natural resources produced huge wealth for other places and people still struggle to thrive. Irreversible declines in the coal industry and in coal severance tax revenue have left no choice but to try something new — after 50 years of night, it’s time for a new day.

Continue reading…


A C.S.X. train loaded with coal winds its way into the mountains in this Nov. 21, 2004 file photo taken near the New River at Cotton Hill in Fayette County, W.Va. (AP Photo/Jeff Gentner)

The ever-helpful Wonkblog at The Washington Post has a good piece out this week with the simple headline, “Here’s why Central Appalachia’s coal industry is dying.” Obviously, these are issues we’ve talked about many times before here on Coal Tattoo and in the Gazette (see here, here and here, just for example). But it’s instructive to see Brad Plumer break it all down. He writes:

First, as Patrick Reis reported over at National Journal, coal jobs in West Virginia and Kentucky have been vanishing for decades — long before Barack Obama became president … Why have Kentucky and West Virginia lost 38,000 coal jobs since 1983? For one, coal mining has become increasingly automated in recent decades, particularly as companies have shifted to techniques such as mountaintop-removal mining, which are less labor intensive. (An EPA crackdown on mountaintop removal in 2009 actually led to a small bump in coal employment in West Virginia.)

Another big problem for Appalachia’s coal industry has been competition from cheaper, low-sulfur coal out West — particularly from Wyoming’s Powder River Basin … On top of everything else, Central Appalachia’s coal now appears to be running out, as many of the thick, easy-to-mine seams have vanished. The Energy Information Administration estimates that coal production in eastern Kentucky and West Virginia will soon be just half of what it was in 2008, plunging from 234 million tons down to 112 million tons in 2015.


The piece also addresses the trends impacting the broader coal industry beyond our region:

And this is all before delving into the pressures that the entire U.S. coal industry is facing. A combination of cheap natural gas from shale fracking and new pollution regulations from the EPA have been elbowing aside coal in the electricity sector …

So far, the coal-mining industry has weathered this storm by exporting more coal abroad, especially to Europe. But the future for coal exports is murky. Environmentalists have protested planned export terminals in the Northwest. And analysts at Goldman Sachs think the overseas market for coal — particularly in China — could stagnate in the years to come.

That means the U.S. coal industry as a whole is facing pressure from a variety of fronts — both regulatory pressures and competition from cheaper sources like natural gas. (There was also the Sierra Club’s “Beyond Coal” campaign in the 2000s, which was particularly effective at blocking new coal plants.) Yet Appalachia is particularly vulnerable, in part due to headwinds that have been gathering strength for decades.

Brad also delves into what this means for the coalfields, both in terms of short-term jobs losses and hardships, and in terms of long-term potential, noting one recent national media report about the impact of coal’s decline, and opines:

Some experts have suggested that Central Appalachia could eventually thrive from shifting away from its single-minded focus on coal. The Downstream Strategies report observes that the region has a wealth of clean-energy resources, from wind to solar to sustainable biomass. West Virginia, for one, is looking to get into shale-gas drilling. Still, it’d be a mistake to gloss over how disruptive — and painful — that transition could be. Just look at Detroit’s struggles in shifting away from its longstanding reliance on the auto industry.

And, so far, the federal government hasn’t helped much. Here’s a telling line from Suzy’s piece: “[Obama] promised in June to ‘give special care to people and communities that are unsettled by the transition’ to cleaner energy. But so far, little extra help has arrived in eastern Kentucky.”

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New reports warn of ‘peak coal’

Navajo Mine

We’ve talked many times before on this blog about the concept of “peak coal,” and last year we put together a lengthy Gazette story that explained why Republic presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s figures — “We have 250 years of coal, why wouldn’t we use it?” — were considered overly optimistic.

Now, a group called Clean Energy Action is cautioning that these sorts of estimates for how much coal is left to be mined in this country don’t have much basis in fact. Here’s what they say in their press release:

America does not have 200 years in coal “reserves” since  much of the coal that is now left in the ground cannot be mined profitably, according to a major new report  from the Boulder, CO-based nonprofit Clean Energy Action (CEA). The CEA analysis shows that the U.S. appears to have reached its “peak coal” point in 2008 and now faces a rocky future over the next 10-20 years of rising coal production costs, potentially more bankruptcies among coal mining companies, and higher fuel bills for utility consumers.

The group has actually released three reports — Warning: Faulty Reporting of U.S. Coal Reserves, U.S. Coal Costs: 2004-2012, and Coal Production Top 16 States. Here are the major points they outline in their announcement:

— EIA’s claimed 200 billion tons of coal “reserves” are not likely to be extracted economically. In fact, significantly less than 20 percent of US coal formations will likely be economically recoverable for mining purposes. Given the current financial strains affecting US coal companies, it is unclear whether they will be able to support the increased capital and labor costs associated with mining coal that is more difficult to access.

— Consumers are already paying the price for rising US coal costs – and likely soon will be paying even more. The cost of coal used by electric utilities has been—rising in almost all states at a rate of 6-10 percent per year or 2-3 times faster than inflation over the last decade. Since 2004, average US delivered coal costs have increased at a rate above 7 percent per year. At a rate of more than 7 percent per year, coal costs will double in less than a decade—as they have done in a number of states since 2004. The 12 states with the highest annual increases in the cost of delivered coal from 2004-2012 are (from highest to lowest): Mississippi (12.54%), Montana (11.64%), Nebraska (11.17 %), Indiana (10.03%), Michigan (9.92%), Louisiana (9.68%), Maryland (9.59%), South Carolina (9.58%), Wisconsin (9.34%), New York (9.22%), Missouri (9.2%), and Pennsylvania (9.05%).

— The United States already appears to be past “peak coal” with coal production falling off significantly since the apparent peak in US production in 2008. In addition, almost all of the top 16 coal producing states appear to be past peak. Even the large coal-producing western states of Wyoming (14.2% drop) and Montana (18.1% drop) have seen significant production declines in recent years that aren’t likely to be recouped. The other 14 coal producing states seeing coal production drops are (from highest to lowest percentage declines): Pennsylvania (80.2%), Virginia (61.4%), Ohio (50.2%), Kentucky (47.7%), Illinois (46.4%), Arizona (44%), Utah (39.3%), Alabama (32.4%), West Virginia (31.8%), Colorado (28.3%), New Mexico (24.3%), Texas (20.8%), North Dakota (14.9%), and Indiana (2.4%).

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Ky. leaders announce coalfield economic summit


Here’s some news from the folks at the Herald-Leader in Lexington:

Stung by the loss of nearly 6,000 coal jobs in Eastern Kentucky since mid-2011, Democrat Gov. Steve Beshear and Republican U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers announced Monday a summit to come up with ideas to improve the region’s crippled economy.

Beshear and Rogers also announced a planning committee of more than 40 people — many from the private and education sectors — to come up with topics and goals for the summit, which will be Dec. 9 at the Eastern Kentucky Exposition Center in Pikeville.

People involved in the effort acknowledged Monday that there have been many plans put forth in the past to develop or diversify the economy of Appalachian Kentucky, with little progress made.

Ideas will have to come from within the region if the new effort is to work, Beshear said.

“To be successful, the people of Appalachia must step up and take ownership and responsibility for their own future,” Beshear said at a news conference at Hazard Community and Technical College.

 The story continues:

Rogers, who has been a strong critic of tougher environmental rules on mining and burning coal put in place by the Obama administration, said he would continue fighting for the coal industry.

But Monday, he said the region needs to embrace an economy defined by technology and innovation.

“Our best resources are a different energy source” than coal, Rogers said. “It’s our people.”

The event Monday was a bipartisan show of support for the effort to come up with a plan for the region. Kentucky House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, and Senate President Robert Stivers, R-Manchester, also spoke.

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The decline of coal and W.Va.’s budget shortfall


A C.S.X. train loaded with coal winds its way into the mountains in this Nov. 21, 2004 file photo taken near the New River at Cotton Hill in Fayette County, W.Va.  (AP Photo/Jeff Gentner)

It’s always interesting to see how coal industry officials will jump to use any little tidbit in the media to try to make their argument that the Obama administration’s “war on coal” is somehow unfairly punishing West Virginia, destroying coalfield communities and dismantling our state budget in the process.

Some folks are doing that today with parts of Gazette statehouse reporter Phil’s Kabler’s latest effort at covering the state budget, in which Phil told us:

Based on current revenue projections, legislators will need to cut spending by about $80 million in the state budget that begins next July, and that budget gap is projected to grow to $265 million for 2015-16, state Budget Office Director Mike McKown told legislators Monday.

“The way you do that is to cut budgets or to raise taxes, and there’s no appetite to raise taxes,” McKown told a legislative interim committee.

Here’s the part about the coal industry:

… The state economy of late has been flat, primarily because of declining coal sales, he said.

For the first three months of the 2013-14 budget year, tax collections are down 3.4 percent.

“As long as our revenues are flat and our expenses go up, we’re getting into structural problems with our budget,” McKown said.

Electrical power plants are converting from coal to cheaper, cleaner natural gas, and while the state collects a 5 percent severance tax on each source of energy, statewide coal sales last year were about $8 billion, while natural gas sales totaled only about $2.3 billion, McKown said.

Severance taxes account for about 11 percent of the state’s general revenue budget, he said.

Also, natural gas production is much less labor-intensive, McKown said, pointing out that consumer sales taxes and personal income taxes combined account for 72 percent of the state budget.

“Coal miners make a lot of money, pay a lot of income taxes, and buy a lot of things,” he said, outlining the impact of declining coal employment on the budget.

Fair enough. There’s simply no question that the coal industry has a big impact on our state’s economy and, especially, on the state government budget.  In a coal industry-sponsored study published in 2010, researchers from WVU and Marshall documented this impacts. Of course, that’s not the whole story. Downstream Strategies explained in a separate report that the coal industry actually costs the state government budget more than the industry provides to the state.

But the media reports  don’t exactly tell the full story about the current budget situation. They leave out some important facts that would help readers understand that a big hunk of the budget problems West Virginia officials now face are really self-inflicted ones. For example, as the West Virginia Center for Budget and Policy has tried to explain, state leaders decided to phase out the business franchise tax and reduce the corporate net income tax rate. The center warned back in early 2011:

Because the Legislature did not replace the lost tax revenue with corresponding tax increases, it will become increasingly harder for the state to fund services and programs.

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For Central Appalachian coal, bad news continues


The bad news just keeps coming for the Appalachian coal industry. First, there was this report from the Columbus Dispatch:

American Electric Power Company Inc. CEO Nick Akins shared his vision for where the Columbus-based utility is headed Wednesday, and his priority list didn’t include coal, AEP’s traditional go-to fuel source for its power plants. “We see the future for us being natural gas, energy efficiency, smart-grid activities and renewables,” he said during a Columbus Metropolitan Club program.

Contrast that to the coal cheer leading that Nick Akins was doing not so long ago in an appearance here in Charleston:

Although the amount of energy produced by coal will decrease in the nation — from 45 percent today to 39 percent by 2020 — a top electric utility company CEO said there is definitely a future for coal.

“Coal is naturally going to come down, natural gas will be the choice, but they’re really marginal,” said Nick Akins, president and chief executive officer of American Electric Power. “Once technology is proven, you’ll start to see coal come back. We still need coal . . . . If someone is trying to eliminate that, it’s just not going to happen.”

 And then there was this report from Erica Peterson at WFPL in Kentucky:

Eastern Kentucky’s coalfields are struggling…last year, coal production dropped to the lowest level since 1965, as utilities shift toward natural gas. Now, in the wake of news of mass layoffs in Eastern Kentucky’s coalfields, two of the nation’s larger utility companies are essentially pulling out of the region.

The Tennessee Valley Authority has already stopped buying Central Appalachian coal. Southern Company’s subsidiaries got 18 percent of their coal from Central Appalachia in 2012, but plan to reduce that to only one percent by 2016. Instead, both utilities will rely on coal from the Illinois Basin, which includes parts of Western Kentucky, as well as the Powder River Basin out west. Illinois Basin coal has a higher sulfur content than Central Appalachian coal, but updated pollution controls on most power plants allow them to burn the dirtier high sulfur coal and still comply with the Clean Air Act.

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WVU’s Peng takes us down wrong energy road again

Plant Scherer, Southern Company

On the one hand, perhaps it is good news that the latest op-ed from West Virginia University mining engineering professor Syd Peng isn’t a ridiculous rant against air pollution standards and efforts to curb the global climate crisis.

spengBut it’s unfortunate that Dr. Peng’s commentary was published on Sunday, following a week that saw some very forward-thinking efforts aimed at moving West Virginia toward a more honest, open and inclusive discussion about the ongoing decline in Southern West Virginia’s coal industry, coal’s role in global warming and ways our state’s people could work together to diversify the coalfield economy.

Sure, Dr. Peng makes a few valid points. But like his previous Gazette commentaries we’ve debunked on this blog (see here and here) Dr. Peng again takes us down wrong roads with false choices that have us fighting the same old fights over and over again.

First for his valid points. Dr. Peng writes:

If we’re smart, we shouldn’t be content with just exporting coal. We ought to jump at the opportunity to demonstrate and then sell advanced coal technologies and American know-how to China, India and other countries whose economic growth requires more and better use of coal … U.S. technology for carbon mitigation could make it easier for countries to make better use of the trillions of tons of coal in the world. Capturing a share of the global market for coal technology would be a huge prize. With world coal use growing at a breakneck pace and a race on to raise coal-burning efficiency while reducing its carbon footprint, we need focused government support, particularly to develop and demonstrate technologies for carbon capture and storage (CCS).

While many in the environmental community scoff at CCS, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has listed it as a much-needed (though very uncertain) mitigation strategy for climate change, and the Union of Concerned Scientists has specifically backed the notion that the United States should forge ahead with CCS research if for no other reason than the help reduce greenhouse emissions from the developing world’s burning of coal.

The problem is that, while Dr. Peng laments the lack of advancement on CCS technology being perfected and deployed, he just can’t bring himself to even mention what experts agree is probably the most crucial step needed to make CCS happen:  For the federal government to put a price on carbon emissions by putting in place some sort of greenhouse gas limits. By leaving this important piece of the puzzle out of his commentary, Dr. Peng sets readers up for the false conclusion that some anti-coal zealotry by the Obama administration on CCS research — not inaction by Congress and opposition by the coal industry to greenhouse gas limits — is the root of this problem.

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Diversifying the coalfields: Finding a path forward

Census Dying Counties

Coal Tattoo posts have been pretty scarce this week, in large part because I tried to focus my time on the groundbreaking forum, “A Bright Economic Future for the Mountain State,” over at the Clay Center. 

The event, sponsored by the Union of Concerned Scientists, the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy, and the West Virginia Community Development Hub, aimed to jump-start the discussion about what our state is — and more important what else we can — do to help soften the impact of the ongoing coal decline in West Virginia’s southern counties. If you missed it, we’ve got coverage of it here, here, here and here.

A couple of moments in the forum stuck in my mind. One was when Charleston Area Alliance Matt Ballard — certainly no coal-hating socialist — made his views pretty clear about the need for West Virginia to look forward, not backward, when it comes to making our communities places where families can live and work:

There certainly is an element in our state that doesn’t want things to change, and we have to overcome that.  When we talk about West Virginia’s future, we have to understand that it’s not going to look like our past.

Matt didn’t really get very specific about exactly what element of our state he was talking about. But you know what, it doesn’t matter. Because we could all probably work on our ability to accept change, whether it’s the decline of the state’s coal industry or the move to online distribution of news and information. As Sen. Byrd reminded us, we all need to try to embrace the future.

The other moment was then Commerce Secretary Keith Burdette got the question (full disclosure: I’m the one who scribbled this one onto an index card) that asked him to list specific steps that Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin and his administration have done to try to prepare the Southern West Virginia coalfields for the production decline that’s projected to continue for some time. Secretary Burdette kind of hemmed and hawed for a moment, and then, as I explained in our print story:

Secretary-Burdette“Well, look, I’d like to tell you there is some master scheme in every section of the state,” Burdette said. “But the challenge we have in the coal-producing areas of the state is that it’s a lucrative profession … it’s awfully difficult to motivate these folks into a different career path if the one they’ve enjoyed for so long might still be available.

“There is going to be a huge transition, regardless,” Burdette said. “As some of the fields play out, we will have communities that need to find a new way of life.”

The only specific effort Burdette could cite to help with that search was “Reconnecting McDowell,” a partnership to boost that county’s educational system as a path toward economic improvements.

“That’s probably [items] 1, 2 and 3 is that one effort,” Burdette said. “But if we can make it work there, we can make it work anywhere else in the state.”

On the one hand, it’s kind of surprising that Keith didn’t have an answer to this question prepared, given the topic of the event. But really, you also should respect the fact that he didn’t try to dodge around it, providing some prepared soundbite that pretends the administration has an easy answer — or that there is an easy answer. That one moment summarizes what anyone who has spent anytime trying to figure this one out knows: The future is going to be tough for our southern coalfields, and no one is exactly sure what to do to help them through it. If someone had an easy answer, we could implement it and move on.

There’s also, though, a pretty important problem with the part of Keith Burdette’s comment when he says, “it’s awfully difficult to motivate these folks into a different career path if the one they’ve enjoyed for so long might still be available.”

That’s all just fine, except that all indications are these kind of well-paying coal jobs are going to continue to become increasingly scarce in the southern coalfields. And the “war on coal” crowd among industry officials and their political friends is all about continuing a massive public relations campaign to convince coalfield residents that, if not for President Obama and the EPA, none of these jobs would be going away. The truth is that pretty much every estimate around shows a consistent decline in Southern West Virginia coal production, regardless of what Obama and EPA do or don’t do about mountaintop removal, coal ash, global warming or any of coal’s other externalized costs.

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EIA: Coal market fundamentals have changed


Here’s the latest from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Energy Information Administration:

While coal market fundamentals changed in first-half 2013 compared with the same period of 2012, spot prices remained largely unchanged. Demand for coal was higher and supply was lower in first-half 2013, but because electric companies chose to burn off large inventories instead of buying more coal and because international coal prices were weaker, the spot market remained largely unchanged.

The latest EIA report explained:

The continued rise in natural gas prices drove more use of coal for electricity generation. This, combined with higher electricity demand, resulted in total coal consumption for electricity generation in all sectors of 31 million tons, or 13%, more in the first four months of 2013 than in the same period of 2012. Although data for the second quarter of 2013 are not yet available, the increase in domestic consumption for the first half of 2013 is likely to more than offset the weaker coal exports anticipated in the second quarter of 2013, resulting in higher year-on-year total coal demand.

Importantly, for folks in Southern West Virginia and Eastern Kentucky:

While the supply-demand balance tightened for coal in general, changes in consumption and production of coal from different mining regions varied. The rise of first-half-year average natural gas prices at Henry Hub to $3.76/MMBtu in 2013 is likely to have resulted in overall stronger growth of consumption of the lower-cost PRB and Illinois Basin (ILB) coals. Although Appalachian and PRB coal production all declined in response to lower demand for deliveries, Central Appalachian (CAPP) coal production was cut deeper than all other mining regions—10.3 million tons, or 13%, compared with the first half of 2012. Steadily declining domestic demand for steam coal from CAPP and weaker exports of metallurgical coal compared with the year before forced producers to close higher-cost mines. In contrast, ILB coal production increased year-on-year as the coal expanded its market both domestically and overseas. Higher gas prices and the lower cost of ILB coal relative to Appalachian coals supported more use of ILB coal for power generation in the domestic market. Geographic proximity to coal-exporting infrastructures also enabled the coal to benefit from international demand.


Coal, politics and the Detroit bankruptcy

Member Exchange Business

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.

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Well, I see that the coal industry and its supporters are more intent than ever in trying to continue the strategy that failed for them during last year’s presidential election: Making the troubles in our nation’s coalfields all about some cooked-up notion of an Obama administration “war on coal.”

Someone calling himself “T.H.” from Ona, West Virginia, has launched a petition drive on the White House website to try to get the president to end his “war on coal.” The petition argues that President Obama has insulted “the generations of miners who made America the greatest nation in the world” and goes on to argue:

He has used executive orders to bypass Congress, imposing impossible standards that will raise the price of energy for all Americans. We call upon the President to apologize to American coal miners, past and present, and to implement policies and actions to encourage the use of coal – our most abundant and affordable resource – and protect our nation’s coal mining jobs to ensure America’s energy security.

As of this morning, the petition — launched on Saturday — had 770 signatures, meaning it needs another 99,230 by Aug. 11 to prompt the White House to provide an official response.

In many ways, though, the administration has already responded — though some of their response was silly floundering around during last year’s election, and the president has really never spoken directly to coalfield voters in a very serious way about the challenges their communities face.   But even recently, administration officials have explained that they’re simply trying to take appropriate steps to deal with many of the externalized costs of the coal industry including, most notably, greenhouse emissions. And the president’s recently announced climate change action plan tries to help the industry move in that direction, with $8 billion in new loan guarantees for fossil fuel projects, including carbon capture and storage technology.

But while the coal industry itself and most of its political supporters, along with the career campaign consultants, have only one message (that they hate Obama), the discussion is growing around the notion that the coalfields need to be looking for other alternatives.

Take for instance this story in the Daily Mail (yes, the Daily Mail) about the potential for West Virginia to develop a “future fund” to help with economic diversification:

West Virginia lawmakers soon will travel to North Dakota to learn about that state’s Legacy Fund, in hopes of establishing a similar savings program here.

The 2-year-old trust fund, built with oil and natural gas tax revenues, already contains more than $1 billion in assets. State officials aren’t allowed to touch that money until 2017, when interest generated from the account will flow into North Dakota’s general revenue fund.

… Senate President Jeff Kessler, D-Marshall, has long wanted to start a similar fund in West Virginia using natural gas tax revenues. And while West Virginia’s delegation could learn much from the Legacy Fund’s successes, they also should take note of some hard lessons North Dakota has learned along the way.

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