Coal Conversation Continues Across Appalachia

Conversations about coal often turn to intense predictions about its fate – as an energy source, a job source, and a defining element of the Appalachian region. But to really understand where we, and coal, might be headed, comprehending the complicated role coal plays in the region’s economy, environment and social fabric currently is absolutely vital. Yesterday, the release of two information sources added to our collective understanding about coal.

The first was the release of two reports in the series “Coal and Renewables in Central Appalachia” by Downstream Strategies and the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy. The two reports covered the impact of coal on the West Virginia and Tennessee state budgets respectively. Modeled on the same accounting methodology that the states use to assess economic benefits or contributions from the coal sector, this series seeks to provide a full-cost accounting of the impacts of coal (both positive and negative) on state budgets. Each report is premised with an explanation of the context in which it was written:

The project is comprised of a series of research reports that will look not only at the impact of coal on state budgets, but will also investigate county-level impacts of the coal industry in Central Appalachia. In addition, this broader project will investigate the potential benefits that could result from renewable energy development and energy efficiency improvements within the region. The goal of these reports is to add to the public dialog so that policy makers at the county, state, and federal level can fairly assess the current benefits and costs of the coal industry and the potential for economic diversification.

The West Virginia study concluded that the coal industry costs the West Virginia budget $97.5 million more annually than it contributes in severance and other taxes. In Tennessee, given that coal contributes to a smaller portion of the state’s economic base, the calculations determined a net loss of $3 million for the state.

This research builds upon a study released by Downstream Strategies earlier this year, “The Decline of Central Appalachian Coal and the Need for Economic Diversification.”

In Kentucky, UK’s “Coal in Kentucky: A Documentary” film premiered at the Kentucky Theater in Lexington Tuesday evening. The film is described as giving voice to stakeholders in Appalachia: “Through the voices of coal industry professionals, activists, politicians and everyday people, this documentary examines the significance of coal in Kentucky.” The project was the result of Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet funding made available to the University to create a “video documentary project with supporting on-line materials and educational events exploring the enduring significance of coal mining in Kentucky.”

Specifically, the “intent of this project is to present a balanced picture of coal in Kentucky.” Such a balanced view has not, in the eyes of the project leaders, been achieved through previous film portrayals of the coal issue. This film seeks to succeed where others have missed the mark: “Many documentaries have been produced which focus mining disasters, labor disputes and health concerns. There are far fewer that have presented a balanced perspective examining both the benefits of the energy gleaned through mining as well as its impacts on the people and environment of Kentucky.

In addition to screenings of the film itself, the project hopes to foster dialogue about coal through online resources hosted on the project’s website.

We continue to hope that resources like these reports and this film will spark conversations about coal, our region and our collective future.

Kristin Tracz

About Kristin Tracz

Kristin Tracz served MACED’s Research and Policy team from 2009-2012 working on clean energy policy, energy efficiency programs and the Appalachian Transition Initiative. She joined MACED after finishing her Master of Environmental Management degree at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies. She now lives and works in Washington, DC.