Give Gov. Matt Bevin’s environmental secretary credit. When asked about the prospects for Eastern Kentucky’s coal industry, he was honest — unlike all the misleading political ads and mailings that are bombarding Kentuckians.
What Secretary Charles Snavely said was important, but how he prefaced it is even more enlightening in this election season.
When asked by a lawmaker at a meeting in February if there is hope for a coal-industry rebound in Central Appalachia, Snavely said, “I regret you ask me that question in a public forum because if you ask me a question, I’m going to give you the answer.”
OK. He seems to be saying Kentuckians can’t handle the truth. But why? What myth is it so important to perpetuate?
Snavely, a mining engineer and former coal-company executive, went on to say that he sees no rebound for Eastern Kentucky’s coal jobs anytime soon.
He based his prediction on world economic conditions, cheap natural gas and an uncertain regulatory environment that discourages electrical utilities from building new coal-fired capacity.
Plus, thermal (the kind for power production) coal from Eastern Kentucky has a unique market disadvantage. Because the remaining seams are thin, it costs more to mine, which means it can’t compete on price with coal from other regions, including the Illinois Basin, Wyoming, Montana and even Northern Appalachia — all of which produce cheaper coal than Eastern Kentucky.
That honest opinion from a Republican governor’s appointee echoes what a utility executive told the Kentucky Governor’s Conference on Energy and Environment in Lexington last month.
Natural gas is expected to overtake coal this year as the country’s No. 1 source of power and could continue to underprice coal for the next 20 to 50 years. Kentucky Power chief Greg Pauley said that because natural gas and wind energy are “the price winners,” demand for coal isn’t coming back “no matter who is elected in November.”
Yet, Republicans from Donald Trump right down the ballot to Kentucky legislative candidates are holding out false promises that the outcome of this election can bring back coal jobs. They’re even accusing pro-coal Democrats like House Speaker Greg Stumbo, who never saw a strip mine he didn’t like, of waging “war on coal.”
And they revile the few Democrats — presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and congressional challenger Nancy Jo Kemper — who are telling the truth and offering concrete ideas for creating new jobs and opportunities.
Kentuckians have every right to be disillusioned with a long line of politicians, from both parties, who have bowed before a single powerful industry that would tolerate no new industries or businesses that might compete for workers to fill its dangerous jobs.
Coal-mine employment in Kentucky peaked around 1950 and — except for a spurt in the 1970s — has been steadily declining ever since. Everyone knew this day would come. Future generations will marvel that those in power did so little to prepare for it and waited so long to begin building a diverse economy in the mountains.
Kentuckians can handle the truth, if only more politicians respected them enough to speak it. Voters who fall for promises, implied or express, to bring back coal jobs will be pinning their votes and their hopes to an illusion.