Editorial: Ky. seams diminishing, we need to plan new economy

Here's a great op-ed from Rick Clewett, from Sunday's Lexington Herald-Leader:

Over the past few months, a handful of coal mines in Eastern Kentucky and West Virginia have closed. It is clear that this is not a blip on the radar but part of a regional trend. Several studies have indicated that the amount of coal mined in Eastern Kentucky has fallen off considerably in the last several years and that the amount of coal mined in the region will continue to fall.

Thus, the Energy Information Agency released a draft report in January stating that, "The share of domestic coal production originating from mines in the West increases from 47 percent in 2010 to 56 percent in 2035, and the Appalachian share declines from 39 percent to 29 percent during the same period, with most of the decline occurring by 2020."

There are several reasons for Appalachian coal’s recent and projected decline besides the economic downturn.

First, the market has been flooded with cheap and plentiful natural gas, a supply that is forecasted to continue for decades. Second, the available coal seams in Eastern Kentucky are getting smaller and more expensive to mine.

Coal companies mined the easy and rich seams long ago and have been increasingly going back to mine thinner and less accessible seams. For this kind of mining to be profitable, the price of Appalachian coal needs to remain high, but it has been trending downward.

Appalachian coal is relatively expensive low-sulfur coal that used to have an advantage over the high sulfur coal of the Illinois Basin (which includes Western Kentucky) and the Powder River Basin out west.

As "scrubbers" are installed on the smokestacks of existing coal-fired power plants to meet sulfur dioxide emission standards, those plants have been able to start burning less expensive, high sulfur coal. Thus, Appalachian coal’s former advantage has disappeared.

That means that much more serious and sustained attention needs to be paid to how we are going to create the basis of a sound, diversified economy in Eastern Kentucky, one that will provide retraining and good jobs for the miners who will inevitably need to change careers.

Similarly, we must find ways to spare the region’s young people the choice between staying at home with poor job prospects, and often a compromised environment, or leaving their land and people and culture for other places with better job prospects and safer water.

Because we have barely begun to address these problems, the coal counties of Eastern Kentucky and the rural regions of the state more generally are losing population and that means their political clout in Frankfort will decrease.

The recent focus on educational opportunities in the region is a welcome one, particularly since it has moved beyond attempts seemingly aimed at benefiting one particular institution and toward addressing the central problem of the availability of quality higher education opportunities for students in all the coal mining regions of the state.

A recent Herald-Leader opinion piece entitled "Education leadership key to Appalachia’s success in global market" describes the efforts of the newly created Appalachian Teaching and Leadership Network to bring funds, communit volunteerism and expertise into play to improve educational opportunities in Eastern Kentucky and spur economic development.

Such efforts are laudable and it is appropriate and wise for regional leaders not to simply look to Frankfort to solve their problems.

However, Frankfort must step up and become an effective agent for educational and economic development as well.

MACED (Mountain Area Community Economic Development) released a report in March showing that while the funds brought in by the coal severance tax annually are expected to decrease by about 40 percent by 2035, setting aside 1 percent of the severance tax revenue between now and then would create a fund to finance long-term investment and diversified economic growth in Eastern Kentucky.

That’s one idea to consider. I’m sure there are others. One way or another, politicians in Frankfort must help the people of the region prepare an educated work force and a diversified economic base while there is still a coal severance tax and some number of mining jobs.

If they don’t, mining in the mountains of Kentucky will simply continue to decline until the profitably minable coal is gone.

In the meantime, water quality, living conditions and the environment in the region will increasingly suffer, and no new, diversified, sustainable economy will be developed to allow the people of the region the possibility of staying home and building on the strengths of their traditional culture in the decades to come.