Coal's forecast cold in E. Ky.; McConnell should go after fracking

Sen. Mitch McConnell and other Republicans gave the old "war on coal" canard a workout last week as Gina McCarthy, President Barack Obama's pick to head the Environmental Protection Agency, came up for a confirmation hearing.

In a statement, McConnell warned that McCarthy "would continue to foster this administration's radical environmental and anti-coal jobs agenda."

The environmental non-profit Appalachian Voices anticipated this line of attack and analyzed data from the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration, and, lo and behold, more people on average have been employed mining and processing coal during Obama's presidency than during that of his coal-friendly, regulation-averse predecessor, George W. Bush.

(A similar phenomenon must be at work on Wall Street where the stock market has reached all-time highs under Obama's radical anti-business agenda.)

Average coal employment during the Bush years was 76,470 compared with 88,152 for the Obama years, a difference of 15 percent.

In Kentucky, coal employment on average was also higher under Obama (17,168) than Bush (15,826).

By using yearly averages, however, the Appalachian Voices analysis glossed over the large layoffs in late 2012 in Kentucky.

So we calculated Kentucky coal jobs, using the year-end mining employment figure of 14,083, a decline of 4,028 jobs from the year before, and still there were more mining jobs, on average, in Kentucky under Obama than under Bush.

None of that is meant to suggest a rosy future for coal jobs or the industry in Eastern Kentucky. Far from it.

To understand why, consider other numbers from Kentucky Coal Facts, a publication of the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet and Kentucky Coal Association.

Coal Facts looked at the cost of coal per million BTUs (a measure of heat creation) in 2011 and reported that of the five major coal states, the most expensive coal delivered to U.S. electrical utilities by far was from Eastern Kentucky. Here's the breakdown:

■ Eastern Kentucky $3.78

■ West Virginia $3.35

■ Pennsylvania $2.97

■ Western Kentucky $2.34

■ Montana $2.07

■ Wyoming 1.97

Meanwhile, natural gas prices have fallen below $2 per million BTUs, according to U.S. News and World Report, almost twice as cheap as Eastern Kentucky coal and competitive with the low-quality, but abundant, stuff from Wyoming.

How bad is it for mountain coal? Consider this: Of all the coal consumed in Kentucky by power plants and industries in 2011, just 11 percent came from Eastern Kentucky.

Thirty-four percent of the coal consumed in Kentucky was transported from other states, and 55 percent came from Western Kentucky.

Western Kentucky mines outproduced those in Eastern Kentucky last year for the first time since 1960 as Union replaced Pike as the state's No. 1 coal county.

McConnell can blame Obama and the EPA for driving up the cost of coal, but the real culprit is 100 years of mining that has left only thin seams in Eastern Kentucky that are costly to mine. This explains why employment rose as production fell.

If McConnell was a real friend of coal, he'd be leaning on the EPA to hurry up regulation of fracking. Natural gas burns cleaner than coal. But some of the largely uncontrolled extraction methods that created the natural gas glut pose a substantial, yet still undetermined, risk to water, air and human health.

That said, it's delusional to hope for a big coal industry rebound in the mountains.