Herald-Leader Editorial

What's next after the coal's gone?

numbers make clear it's time to plan for new mountain economy

October 2, 2011 

Beating their chests about the Obama administration's abuse of the coal industry enables the candidates for governor to avoid the real question: What's the plan after coal?

That day is bearing down faster than many expect, as the Associated Press' Dylan Lovan reported last week.

Coal production in Central Appalachia has fallen 30 percent since its last peak in 1997. Within four or five years, the decline is projected to accelerate into a "huge collapse" for reasons that have less to do with regulation than geology.

The thick, cheap-to-get coal seams are gone. It costs more — and is more destructive to the environment — to extract what's left. The increasing production costs render Eastern Kentucky coal unable to compete with cheaper coal from Wyoming and with natural gas.

More than a year ago, a Morgantown, W.Va. consulting firm, Downstream Strategies, documented the coming collapse. "The Decline of Central Appalachian Coal and the Need for Economic Diversification." (www.downstreamstrategies.com) warns of substantial loss of jobs and tax revenues in coal communities and a loss of state taxes.

The report, reasonably enough, advises "state policy makers across the Central Appalachian region" to "take the necessary steps to ensure that new jobs and sources of revenue will be available in the counties likely to experience the greatest impacts from the declines."

Yet, all we hear in the governor's race is incumbent Steve Beshear and challenger David Williams competing to be most committed to an economic dead end.

The danger is that people listening to them will actually start believing the biggest threat to Eastern Kentucky is the Environmental Protection Agency.

Let's say all environmental curbs on mining were suspended, it would slow the industry's demise in Eastern Kentucky by only a few years.

And what would be left on which to build a future?

Eastern Kentucky's mono-economy has produced some of this nation's poorest places, highest rates of unemployment and least healthy people. In Appalachia, coal-producing counties are poorer than those that have no coal.

And the industry's externalized costs aren't even counted. Instead, residents pay a high price in quality of life and future opportunities as water, land and air are degraded by the blasting and bulldozing of the world's oldest mountains.

A group supporting Republican Williams last week launched attack ads accusing Beshear, a Democrat, of supporting "Obama's EPA plans" to drive out coal jobs and drive up energy costs.

Many Kentuckians will laugh at this charge; they have seen Beshear, like governors before him, bend over backward to accommodate the coal industry.

Beshear, who is already suing the EPA, last week sent Obama a letter complaining that EPA headquarters had pulled the plug on an agreement to get strip-mining permits moving. He also asked the president to help save mining jobs in Kentucky.

In this economy, the loss of any jobs is scary. But short-term economic anxieties do not cancel our obligation to leave future generations a Kentucky where they can be healthy and prosper.

Mountains of evidence tell us a strong EPA is the only hope Eastern Kentucky has of avoiding environmental catastrophe.

And once this election is over, can Kentucky please have a serious discussion about the economic future of our mountains?

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