Eastern Kentucky lost over 4,000 coal jobs in 2012, and production is down to its lowest levels since 1965. This news comes from the Kentucky Department of Energy Development and Independence, according to a press release issued by MACED today. And you can't blame the so-called "war on coal," because Western Kentucky coal employment stayed steady and its production actually increased 2.5%. The fact is, Central Appalachian coal is more expensive to mine, and its low sulfur content is no longer an advantage, now that most coal plants have adopted modern pollution-control technologies. The federal Energy Information Agency predicts that by 2020, Central Appalachian coal production will decline 70.8% from 2011 levels. These jobs are not coming back. So what's next?
First and foremost, we need leaders who are willing to do the hard work of economic diversification. These layoffs, while tragic, are not a surprise to anyone who has been paying attention to energy trends. Too many of our elected officials seem to think that if they pass enough coal-friendly laws, Eastern Kentucky coal jobs will magically return. But you can't legislate thicker coal seams or flatter topography. You can't pass laws to make Powder River Basin coal more expensive.
MACED president Justin Maxson says it well in the press release:
"We recognize the serious hardship that these layoffs mean for many workers and communities in the region. It is abundantly clear that Eastern Kentucky needs strong leadership and more focus on growing a different economy," said Justin Maxson, president of the Mountain Association for Community Economic Development with offices in Berea, Hazard and Paintsville. "Piecemeal investments and disjointed policies are not real solutions. Eastern Kentucky has many of the building blocks for a stronger, homegrown economy — through strategies like entrepreneurship, and more support for sectors like forestry, agriculture, tourism, health care and energy efficiency to name a few — but they require real investment and forward looking leadership."
But where will that investment and leadership come from, and when? Pilot projects and local grants are good starts, but an economic crisis of this size requires investment and planning on a much larger scale. We can't keep kicking the can down the road, waiting for the coal market to turn around, or for a Toyota plant or a federal prison to come in and save us. Appalachia has needed diversification for a long time, but we've always had the pieces in front of us for a new economy built on our own terms. If we won't take action now, when 4,000 of our hardworking men and women have just lost their livelihoods, and with more losses to come, when will we?