Ky. Voices: Coal's fall upon us; will landing be hard or soft?

Architect Richard Levine is head of the CSC Design Studio.
Architect Richard Levine is head of the CSC Design Studio.

While the senatorial donnybrook between incumbent and challengers in Kentucky begins to heat up, thoughtful commentators worried over Kentucky's future beyond coal have begun to weigh in.

In recent weeks, Energy Secretary Len Peters, Kentucky author and commentator Al Smith, historian Ron Eller and columnist Tom Eblen have published their approaches to confronting the inevitable.

What each of them has danced around is the need for a way to get past the divisive politics of the day and find a collaborative way to achieve what we have called "a soft landing for coal."

For all the accusations of President Barack Obama's war on coal, and for all the skepticism about global warming, coal industry leaders and savvy politicians know that economically recoverable coal reserves are being rapidly depleted and that "global weirding" (all the crazy weather and disasters that will follow the rise in average global temperature) is upon us.

A soft landing for coal policy would not just be about trying to save the coal industry. It would seek to preserve the economic futures of coal communities and the workers there who defend this sinking economic ship in hopes of holding onto their dwindling jobs. It would also offer an alternative for the commonwealth's economy when coal mining is no longer profitable and environmental regulations make the industry no longer attractive for investment.

For several years, we have been putting together a model for a policy process — a Soft Landing for Coal game — based in part upon the cooperative spirit and partial success of the National Coal Policy Project of 1977-78 that produced the report, "Where We Agree."

This project brought together coal industry officials and environmental spokespeople in a series of closed-door negotiations that led to several hundred proposals and a dozen or so legislative acts and administrative policies.

At the heart of the project's process was a set of rules of play that bound these erstwhile antagonists to work toward common ground that might not have seemed possible at the outset.

A set of key stakeholders — from coal operators, state regulatory officials and electric utility representatives to environmentalists, community activists and coal community dwellers — would sit down in five to six sessions and explore alternative scenarios for a post-coal economy that would operate within the bounds of the rules of play.

Such a process would acknowledge stakeholder self-interests and would lead to policy outcomes that likely no one would have anticipated when it began. The one cardinal "rule of reason" that could not be violated would be that "scenario building will be guided by the best available evidence or data regarding the facts or conditions as determined by disinterested parties driven by the best science."

Precisely because these deliberations would take place behind closed doors and the results would not be announced until the end, players would work in an environment that creates a safe place for conflict and experimentation outside of the inquisitive eye of the mass media or the meddling hands of public officials or corporate executives.

The hope is that these precautions would allow multiple scenario-building exercises to evolve and produce the best or highest-common-denominator solutions to Kentucky's mounting economic woes as coal inexorably retreats from its role in the commonwealth's regional economies and the state's economic fortunes.

The Soft Landing for Coal game has already been played by students in a University of Kentucky undergraduate course on Appalachian politics — and with interesting results. There, students role-played as different stakeholders after studying their core values, key economic interests and key political goals.

After several rounds of play, they embraced a solution that involved the building of a permanent investment fund separate from the coal severance tax program, which has been used for mostly ill-conceived local projects or raided by the state for General Fund purposes.

Such an investment fund, which has been used by other states, would be used as a fiscal vehicle to generate alternative economic development that would be phased in as the increasingly less profitable coal mining operations continued to decline.

As a modest political tool, A Soft Landing for Coal, if taken to the state level and played among real representatives of key stakeholder groups, might be the last best chance to awaken wider constituencies to the necessity, even inevitability, of planning democratically for a post-coal future.

That should be done before that possible future is overtaken by political and climatological conditions that necessitate draconian policy steps, which will only lead to diminished economic fortunes and a degraded quality of life for most Kentuckians.

Without creative political action now, a hard landing for coal would seem to be the more likely prospect.

Instead, let the games begin!

About the authors: Richard S. Levine, above, is former professor of architecture at the University of Kentucky and principal architect and head of CSC Design Studio in Lexington; Ernie Yanarella is chair of the UK Department of Political Science and a longtimecommunity activist and commentator.