Ky. Voices: Reject 'either, or' posturing to build new energy future

July 15, 2013 

  • At issue: June 26 McClatchy article, "Obama reveals climate plan; Cleaner energy means burning less coal"

The climate change debate is again at the center of national discourse and, again, so many miss the mark on this public-policy issue by couching positions as having to choose between energy resources.

A real opportunity exists to lay the foundation for a new path in coal country to lead the United States forward with comprehensive energy policy reform, one which is a true "all-of-the-above" approach to energy development.

Kentucky's coal counties are being left behind in an emerging global economy and, while Kentucky competes globally in many sectors, it has been coal country's fossil fuel resources that underpin American competitiveness. Yet, traditional strategies have failed to diversify.

With coal under attack, as resources become more costly to extract, a perfect storm is forming that will further decimate coal country. Simply saying no to continued use of coal isn't sound policy. Hard-working families are left with an uncertain future and government appears set on an untenable path that will make the situation worse.

For coal country to diversify, we should adopt a non-politicized strategy, considering all energy resources and uniting across the political aisle. We must reconcile for greater efficacy and consider how resources can be integrated. For example:

■ We have coal and natural gas but also a great potential for biomass and renewable energy.

■ Reform of federal law to allow for industrial hemp production would be a positive start.

■ The conversion of cellulosic biomass and blending it with coal or natural gas will reduce carbon emissions and aid continued competitiveness of fossil fuel.

■ That technology would tap emergent opportunities in bio-chemicals and bio-pharmaceuticals.

■ Integrating renewable energy with both fossil fuels and biomass would provide a strong application on post-mining land.

U.S. policymakers promote an energy strategy that seeks to choose winners and losers, while other countries pursue new technologies and environmentally friendly ways to use fossil fuels.

Government planning has failed in the past to integrate energy development. Look at the number of flood-control dams without hydropower. Of the 79,000 dams in the county, little more than three percent produce hydroelectricity.

President Theodore Roosevelt said: "A typical vice of American politics is the avoidance of saying anything real on real issues." Such is the case with energy-economic development policy that relies on antiquated thinking.

To transform Eastern Kentucky, we must address the age-old dilemma — the boom-bust cycle of coal production — that is now coupled with government overregulation and changing global market conditions. Our response must be swift in adopting a bold strategy to break the cycle.

In Eastern Kentucky, poverty rates continue to rise. Nearly 200,000 people, or nearly 30 percent of the population, live in poverty in southeastern Kentucky. Coal employment is at its lowest point since 1950. A key revenue source, coal severance tax, continues to decline.

Some suggest replacing coal jobs with low-wage service sector jobs. While these are important, they are not a viable replacement for coal's high-wage jobs. An economic dichotomy in our commonwealth is emerging. While the Golden Triangle diversifies, coal country struggles. An energy-economic strategy that also encourages entrepreneurial risk-taking is needed to stem our economic decline.

Beyond the "either-or" political posturing lies the opportunity to break through to a transformed coal country. It requires recognition that action is required now and that political activists be flexible.

An environmentally responsible framework, deploying existing technologies and developing new ones, will break the detrimental impacts of the boom-bust economic cycle — permanently.


At issue: June 26 McClatchy article, "Obama reveals climate plan; Cleaner energy means burning less coal"

Roger Ford is CEO of Patriot Bioenergy Corporation in Pikeville.

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