Coal and the Future

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Some of the clearest benefits of the industrialization of the region have been the good-paying jobs for those working in the coal industry. Those jobs, however, have been in a long-term decline driven largely by continuing mechanization. Coal employment has declined from approximately 475,000 jobs at the end of World War II to only around 38,000 today. From 1973 to 2003, the region lost 62 percent of its coal jobs. Even in a significant coal producer like Harlan County, Kentucky, coal now makes up only 1,200 jobs in a county of 30,000 people. For Central Appalachia as a whole, coal mining is only 2 percent of direct employment.

Those jobs will only decline further as the remaining coal becomes less economical to mine. Central Appalachian coal has lost market share to cheaper-to-mine western coal. Thick, easy-to-access coal seams in the region are now largely depleted, and official sources project a significant decline in coal extracted over future years. The Energy Information Administration’s Annual Energy Outlook 2009 estimates that over the next ten years Central Appalachian coal production will decline between 22 and 36 percent even before taking into account the impact of possible climate change legislation. The 2009 National Coal Resource Assessment produced by the U. S. Geological Survey projects that “annual coal production from the Appalachian Basin will enter a period of irreversible decline during the next several decades.”

Public opinion is also turning away from coal because of its many costs, not the least of which is its impact on climate change. Coal is the most carbon-intensive of all fuels, and is responsible for 37 percent of U.S. carbon dioxide emissions. Two of the states to which Central Appalachia exports the most coal—North Carolina and Ohio—have recently adopted Renewable Portfolio Standards through which they will get an increasing share of their electricity from renewable energy sources. In response to the threat of climate change to the future of coal, the coal industry and some political leaders are arguing for public subsidies to advance carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) technologies. These technologies, however, are risky, expensive and unproven. Even should they be implemented, the reality of the remaining resource in the region means that Central Appalachia is unlikely to be a major provider of coal to power plants with CCS. A focus on carbon capture technologies as a solution for the region is unlikely to create jobs or even protect the coal jobs the region has now, much less bring back those jobs that have already disappeared.

Coal’s costs are more and more clear within the region as well. A West Virginia University study estimated that the economic cost of human lives lost alone because of mining is five times greater than the economic benefits the industry provides to the region. A Physicians for Social Responsibility study described how coal’s lifecycle contributes to four of the five leading causes of mortality in the United States: heart disease, cancer, stroke and chronic lower respiratory diseases. And a recent MACED report highlighted the hundreds of millions of dollars spent annually in Kentucky to repair the damage to the coal haul road system; support the coal regulatory infrastructure and provide the coal industry with a variety of tax breaks and other subsidies.

But with mining on the decline, the effectiveness of industrial recruitment to replace lost mining jobs in doubt, and a lack of understanding or belief in other opportunities, there is too little hope about the region’s economic future. It is not wonder, then, that our communities are sharply divided when it comes to issues like mountaintop removal mining: we feel we must choose between jobs and the land around us. There are too few options on the table, too few conversations in our communities and too little public policy in support of an economy that works for the land and the people.

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