What's coal to Kentucky? An ace in the hole? An albatross?
The issue was debated at a daylong forum Thursday at the University of Kentucky, in the heart of a city said to have the largest per-capita carbon footprint in the nation.
And the campus was primed for the subject by a continuing argument over last week's decision by the UK Board to Trustees to take $7 million in private money for what will be a "Wildcat Coal Lodge" for the men's basketball team.
Joe Craft, a coal company executive who put together the donors for the lodge, was among the forum's featured evening speakers.
Craft talked a little about blue and white being his favorite colors before defending coal.
"My experience shows that, time and time again, economic development leads to a better way of life, and that's why Kentucky has depended on coal for more than 100 years," he said.
Organizers said their goal was to provide "a balanced discussion regarding the past, present and future impacts of coal on our state's economy and environment."
The forum attracted more than 300 people. During the day session, the crowd leaned heavily toward the coal industry. An evening session drew more students, who seemed to favor the environmentalists.
The forum presented speakers seldom found in the same room. Several people mentioned that the exchange of ideas was good, but it seemed unlikely that anyone's mind was changed.
Suzanne Tallichet, a Morehead State University sociologist, talked about damaged homes, polluted water supplies and premature deaths that coal mining inflicts among people in Eastern Kentucky.
She was followed by House Majority Leader Rocky Adkins, D-Sandy Hook, who began by saying, "I have a different description of Eastern Kentucky."
He said the state must look for renewable sources of industry but insisted that any state energy policy "has to be centered around coal."
Chris Barton, from UK's forestry department, talked about his research on how to restore forests on strip-mined land (the trick, he said, is to not compact the soil). Rodney Andrews, director of the UK Center for Applied Energy Research, gave a quick rundown on research into many types of energy but said that coal "is going to remain the primary source of energy in this state for the foreseeable future."
He also talked about the challenges of capturing carbon dioxide from power plants. With the technology available, he said, it would take 30 percent of a plant's output to capture the carbon. That would mean mining and burning 30 percent more coal just to stay even, he said, adding "that's not efficient."
Historian Ron Bryant told about the early history of coal in the state. The first commercial mine started operating in Muhlenberg County in 1820, he said, and production rose quickly. Almost from the beginning, some people claimed that coal mining was destroying the land. But, Bryant said, "the need for coal stopped all arguments."
Al Cross, a former journalist who now directs UK's Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, gave an overview of coal's more recent history. Coal accounts for only 1 percent of the state's workforce and only 1.5 percent of its economy, he said.
Those numbers are higher in the coal fields. But even there, he said, he suspected that coal supporters don't have a majority.
Speaker Jason Bailey, an economist with the Mountain Association for Community Economic Development in Berea, reviewed his study that said coal costs the state more than it brings in. And, he said, coal production and reserves are dwindling.
"Coal's contributions to Kentucky matter," Bailey said, "but they are smaller than sometimes claimed or assumed."
Some of the strongest support for coal came from former Gov. Paul Patton, who is now president of Pikeville College. The biggest enemies of coal, Patton said, are other states, particularly in the Northeast, who want to drive up Kentucky's low electricity rates so they can compete with Kentucky for new industries.
Fred Palmer, a senior vice president for Peabody Energy, gave what was perhaps the rosiest picture of coal's future, proclaiming that capturing and storing CO2 means "centuries of expanded use" for coal.
Jeff Goodell, the author of Big Coal: The Dirty Secret Behind America's Energy Future, disagreed.
"A lot of people over 40 think that coal is going to be part of our energy future for 100 years," he said. "I know very few people under 30 who feel that way."