No one should expect a revival of Eastern Kentucky coal jobs when not even Kentucky’s electric utilities can afford to buy the region’s coal.
Despite the close proximity, just 4 percent of the coal burned in Kentucky power plants comes from the state’s eastern coalfield, as McClatchy’s Curtis Tate reported in Sunday’s Herald-Leader. That’s down from about a third in 1983.
Yet, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell continues to mislead his constituents and hold out false hope, all for the purposes of political manipulation.
McConnell took to the Senate floor Tuesday to denounce President Barack Obama on the occasion of his final state of the union address. McConnell blamed the president for a collapsing middle class and accused him of waging a “heartless . . . war on coal families who just want to get ahead.”
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He announced that his guest for the presidential speech would be one of thousands of unemployed Eastern Kentucky miners, Howard Abshire of Pikeville, whose message to Obama is: “We’re hurting (and) we need help, but we don’t want to be bailed out, we want to work.”
Maybe if the next president and Congress don’t care about climate change, Abshire could work as a miner in Western Kentucky, which provides about 57 percent of the coal burned in Kentucky power plants, or Wyoming. (More than 90 percent of Kentucky’s power still comes from coal.)
But forces far more powerful than Obama or McConnell — namely, geology and the market — preclude a revival of the coal industry in Eastern Kentucky.
After a century of mining, the big profitable coal seams are gone; the cost of extracting the remaining thin seams is so high as to make coal from Southern Appalachia uncompetitive ($43.50 a ton in December vs. $32.60 a ton for coal from the Illinois Basin).
While the glut of cheap natural gas hastened this day of reckoning, the decline in coal jobs and production had been predicted. Kentuckians can reasonably ask why their political leaders, including McConnell, did not prepare the region for an economic transition.
McConnell hoped his “war on coal” refrain would defeat Obama in 2012; it did not. In 2014 in Kentucky, McConnell turned the “war on coal” into all-purpose anti-Obama code and sailed to re-election.
In 2016, if McConnell really cares about Eastern Kentucky — which, indeed, does “need help” — and if he cares about the people who re-elected him, he should resolve to start telling them the truth about the coal industry’s prospects.
The mountains can’t build a future on stale demagoguery.