Time to get real about coal

We doubt that spending more than $11 billion to finish the final 300 miles of the 3,090-mile Appalachian Development Highway System is the smartest way to breathe life into local economies. But the rest of Democrat Hillary Clinton’s $30 billion plan for helping coal communities weather upheavals in the energy market is promising.

Clinton announced her plan last week for places that she said were an “engine of U.S. economic growth for more than a century” and are now suffering. Just having a leading presidential contender talking about the need for investing in the coalfields is a welcome addition to the national debate.

What’s discouraging is the denial in which too many Kentuckians still seem mired - the belief that Obama administration environmental regulations account for coal’s problems and that the mines would hum again if only those rules were lifted.

Harlan County Judge-Executive Dan Mosley described this point-of-view in an interview with the Herald-Leader’s Bill Estep, saying that any plan that fails to address regulatory relief “is not going to be well received in my area.”

Kentucky desperately needs a dose of truth-telling, like that by the president of West Virginia’s largest electrical utility who last month told a gathering of energy executives that coal is not coming back. Appalachian Power President Charles Patton also said the coal industry has already lost the national debate on climate change, according to the Charleston Gazette-Mail.

The cost of natural gas electricity, including construction of power plants and infrastructure, is about $73 per megawatt hour, Patton said. For a conventional coal plant, it’s $95 per megawatt hour.

Coal from Central Appalachia, which includes Eastern Kentucky, suffers a further price disadvantage because of the high cost of mining depleted coal reserves. A ton of coal from Wyoming’s Powder River Basin cost $11.55 on the spot market earlier this month, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, compared with $49 for coal from Central Appalachia. The price difference wipes out Appalachian coal’s traditional advantages, higher heat content and lower transportation costs.

Coal jobs have been in decline for most of the last 70 years, as production became more mechanized.

But you can hardly blame average Kentuckians for clinging to empty hopes when we just finished a governor’s race in which candidates from both major parties encouraged delusional thinking about the coal industry’s problems and prospects.

Kentucky desperately needs more leaders who deal in reality.