Cris Ritchie begins his Valentine's Day editorial in the Hazard Herald with a stark observation:
So, what does it mean for Eastern Kentucky, where coal jobs have been the backbone of our economy, when companies begin cutting jobs and closing mines? Twenty years ago it would have meant that the coal industry is simply in the midst of a slowdown, and we’ll have another boom in a few years. Now, I’m not so sure.
His editorial, published yesterday, asks "Where do we go without coal?" and readers of this blog won't be surprised that Ritchie doesn't have an easy answer to his own questions. But taken in conjunction with last week's "E. Ky. needs more concern over job losses in coal" editorial in the same paper, these pieces articulate the same questions Appalachian Transition readers seek to answer. Take a look at Ritchie's pieces and let us know what your thoughts are — is this a problem of leadership? vision? economic policy? and, perhaps most importantly — where do we go from here?
The following originally appeared in the February 7, 2012 Hazard-Herald:
by Cris Ritchie
Eastern Kentucky over the past few decades has failed to diversify its economy, and now our collective chickens are coming home to roost in the form of an uncertain and seemingly vulnerable coal industry.
We're all aware that coal as an industry is cyclical in nature, and in as much we can expect booms as much as we can expect ebbs in production, but these most recent workforce reductions announced by coal companies operating in this region are alarming, and not only because of the loss of jobs, which in itself is downright scary.
The reductions are most alarming because there is little to pick up the slack when these coal jobs are lost. And when reasons for the decline in demand of Appalachian coal are taken into account, most notably a rush to switch over to natural gas for electricity generation, it seems these jobs will not be coming back anytime soon. They also won't be replaced by an abundance of jobs in the natural gas industry because those jobs don't exist in Kentucky.
That equation is one in which our region suffers economically, and as most people who discuss our region from the outside looking in are oft to explain, Eastern Kentucky can little afford any more economic depression.
It is early yet, and hundreds of good paying jobs remain, but if more utility companies opt to convert their plants to natural gas instead of coal to generate electricity, where does that leave our economy, which for the past century has been built around coal?
We have deposits of natural gas here, but the big push in that industry is toward West Virginia and Pennsylvania, not here in Kentucky. One company, EQT, just announced last month that they would halt the drilling of all new wells in Kentucky and refocus their efforts in the Marcellus region.
So, where does that leave us, a region that for decades has been content to ride this coal train all the way to the bitter end? Well, now because of increased government regulation and a public sentiment to move away from fossil fuels, that bitter end may be closer then we would like to admit.
For a certain number of people, discontinuing the use of coal may be a good thing, both environmentally and economically, but those people likely don't depend on coal mining to pay their mortgages.
It's a bit like crying as the milk is being spilt, but we should have seen this coming and worked to build a more diverse economy. Instead we suffered from brain drain as our younger generations became educated and moved out of the region while our economy remained dependant on a single industry.
And that's the real shame in all this, that these hundreds of coal miners who have lost their jobs in the past two months can't realistically expect to rebound in their careers, at least not here in Eastern Kentucky. We need these coal jobs to remain in our region because we also desperately need to retain our workforce, the members of which will undoubtedly be forced to move away to find work with comparable pay.
And that's not to mention that power bills will likely continue to increase here in Kentucky as we continue to outsource our energy to other states.
And where is our leadership in all this?
Governor Beshear is keen on saying that he's balanced the budget eight times and now things are turning around for the better, but here in Eastern Kentucky it seems things are taking a turn for the worse, and yet we're not hearing any concern from our leaders. We think if the Toyota plant in Georgetown, or perhaps the Ford plant in Louisville cuts hundreds of jobs over a few months that there might be a bit more concern. But then again, those places aren't in Eastern Kentucky.