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The Last Days of Appalachian Coal

[ 10 ] May 31, 2012 |

Eric Lipton’s feature on the decline of coal in Kentucky is interesting, though flawed. He tells a heartbreaking story for these coal miners, helping us understand just how deeply people in eastern Kentucky believe in coal. Even if other economic opportunities appeared in the region, a lot of people just don’t want to imagine a world not dominated by coal. Of course, the fact that the coal industry has ruled this area as a feudal domain for a century doesn’t help.

Both Lipton and the Kentucky coal operators are giving environmentalists too much power. The idea that environmentalists can set policy in 2012 is pretty laughable and flies in the face of a huge amount of evidence. Environmentalists can be a useful ally if more powerful players want something to happen. New York and Chicago are moving away from supplying power through coal because Bloomberg and Emanuel want it to happen. Sierra Club lobbying might be making a difference but they are hardly, say, passing national legislation or even state-level legislation on these matters. Environmentalists are an easy target. And by including pollution controls on new coal-fired plants, they have raised the cost of doing business. But environmentalists are an easy target that ignores what’s really going on.

And that’s fracking. The economics of natural gas just make a lot more sense. And for as horrible as fracking can be (and for all the problems we have ignored while just plowing ahead), it is almost certainly better for everyone with a stake in energy than coal, except for the coal miners themselves. Natural gas is tremendously efficient for home heating. It’s less dirty than coal. It doesn’t change the climate as quickly. And it’s just a lot cheaper at the present time. Even if you don’t have the pollution controls on new plants, coal can’t compete with natural gas right now.

And one issue the article elides is the fact that Americans are still mining enormous amounts of coal–but it is increasingly in Wyoming instead of Kentucky and West Virginia. Lipton mentions the overseas market for coal, especially in Asia. But high-quality coal seams are disappearing in Appalachia; after over a century, it is finally drying up. So the ability of Appalachia to transition to an overseas market is limited. The companies know this and they are invested whole hog in western coal.

Ideally, the government would step in here like Bill Clinton did during the spotted owl crisis. Settling the issue more or less in favor of environmentalists, as needed to happen, Clinton also ensured significant federal aid and job retraining programs to people who lost their jobs. But there’s no way that is going to happen in 2012. Loggers in 1993 weren’t any much pro-Democratic president than coal miners are today. But Oregon and Washington also had huge local constituencies who wanted to see old-growth logging on federal lands end and there’s just not that local community in Kentucky and West Virginia lobbying for the end of coal. It’s even more of an insider-outsider paradigm than the ancient forest campaigns proved to be. Even more important is the shrinkage of the welfare state and the overt hostility today to helping even white people, as opposed to the 90s when subsidies for poor white loggers were OK but welfare for black mothers was repealed.

Comments (10)

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  1. Estragon says:

    Just gonna drop this here…

  2. Alex says:

    I never picked cotton
    But my mother did and my brother did and my sister did
    And my daddy died young
    workin’ in the coal mine

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0aByT3YjMjY

  3. jameson quinn says:

    What if there were a high carbon tax but non-executive payroll were directly deductible? It would basically make it free for the coal companies to give all the miners a raise and to reduce their hours instead of firing them. A win for the environment, pricing in the externalities; a win for the miners; and not even a huge loss for the coal companies, given that existing coal plants are not about to disappear tomorrow even if prices rise steeply.

    • Erik Loomis says:

      Though of course, the coal companies would pocket as much of it as possible and blame it on environmentalists and Democrat politicians.

      • jameson quinn says:

        Nothing to pocket. They get the tax deduction only by paying it out. They begin to eschew labor-saving technology and coal is mined with fingernails. Which is the only way to save coal mining.

  4. joe from Lowell says:

    The idea that environmentalists can set policy in 2012 is pretty laughable and flies in the face of a huge amount of evidence.

    Lisa Jackson says hi.

    Seriously, Erik, your commentary on this subject could be enriched a great deal by paying more attention to what this EPA has been doing to coal. Jackson is looking to mount the coal industry’s head on her wall, and she’s very much on track to do that.

    Admittedly, I have a certain degree of knowledge about her goals and motivations, but it’s not like her public actions leave a whole lot of grey area.

  5. Dirk Gently says:

    The sad truth is these people are going to be left behind:

    1. Wyoming and Colorado not only have much more high quality coal, they also have tremendous amounts of wind, sun, and natural gas, and relatively easy transportation routes to get it out of there (not to mention the diversity of Denver metro’s local economy). Energy companies are already investing and DIVERSIFYING their efforts here, and I don’t see how Appalachia can compete.

    2. For cultural reasons, I don’t see these folks voting for Democrats any time soon, no matter what any Democrats might be able to give them economically. For the same reasons, Republicans don’t need to do much for them to get their vote. Why tangle with big coal at all, then?

    Once the coal really is gone, what will these folks do? Gods help them.

    • Phoenix_rising says:

      Going to be?

      Literacy, teen pregnancy, child abuse and poverty rates in Pike County say otherwise.

  6. tomstickler says:

    More than 50,000 “Friends of Coal” license plates have been sold in Kentucky. $10 of the annual registration fee goes to the Kentucky Coal Association.

  7. [...] Guns and Money’s Eric Loomis blogs about the collapse of Appalachia’s coal industry, undermined by cheaper competition and the [...]

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