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The Last Days of Appalachian Coal

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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.

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