Putting coal into perspective

A federal agency has estimated that 7,000 jobs across the U.S. coal industry would be lost under a draft proposal for protecting streams from strip-mining.

The loss of any jobs is a scary prospect right now — downright terrifying if it could be your job and you live in a place that's poor even during the best of times.

Step back and take a long view, though, and the loss of 7,000 coal jobs industry-wide is routine, a drop in the bucket.

Kentucky alone lost about 15,000 coal-mining jobs from 1980 to 1990 and that many again from 1990 to 2000.

Coal production in Kentucky peaked in 1990 at 179 million tons, compared with 120 million tons in 2008.

Coal employment, which has rebounded to almost 19,000 in Kentucky since 2000, rises and falls from year to year. (In 2009, Kentucky had 12,034 underground miners and 6,816 surface miners, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.)

Over time, the employment trend has been downward and will continue downward — with or without changes in environmental and safety regulation.

That's because the easy-to-mine coal has already been hauled away in Kentucky and the rest of Central Appalachia, making it more economical for the industry to shift production to the thick seams and high deserts of Wyoming's Powder River Basin.

The rule change that's under study has to do with how close strip-mining can come to streams.

The Bush administration eliminated a rule requiring a 100-foot buffer zone. The rule had never really been enforced, but environmentalists had started winning lawsuits over the issue.

Now the U.S. Office of Surface Mining and Reclamation is considering five alternative rules, reports Ken Ward of the Charleston Gazette in West Virginia.

The alternatives range from allowing mining to go on as it is now to outlawing valley fills and ending mountaintop removal.

The agency's preferred alternative falls somewhere in the middle.

This middle-of-the road approach would reduce mining's annual impact on streams by 57 miles and reduce the impacted land area by 26,000 acres.

So the job losses would be balanced against environmental gains — considerable gains for those whose homes and businesses would avoid flooding if mining's footprint shrinks.

The agency projects no loss in overall U.S. coal production from the rule change, though it says there would be a production loss in some states, presumably including Kentucky.

Rather than railing against environmental protections, visionary leaders would be building a more diverse economy, expanding education and creating jobs with a future.

Coal is a finite resource that will continue to decline in importance in Kentucky, no matter what.

The value of Kentucky's water and forests is infinite — but only if we protect them.