Journal-Times (Grayson, KY)

October 16, 2013

Coal strategy more desperately needed now


Oct. 16, 2013 — We wrote in this space last spring about the growing need for Kentucky, particularly East Kentucky, to develop an economic plan with much less dependence on coal.

Like it or not, the coal industry has gone from a decline to a free fall as companies shutter mines and lay off hundreds of miners with little hope of reopening, especially in the short run.

The latest bad news is the cussed and discussed decision by the Kentucky Public Service Commission to let American Electric Power (AEP) turn out the lights on its Big Sandy generating plant near Louisa.

That move will not only eliminate 125 jobs at the plant but hundreds more at mines which no longer will be selling coal to that plant to burn to make steam to generate electricity.

Politicians are continuing to rail against the so-called “war on coal” by the Obama Administration but the stringent air quality standards are in place and power companies have no choice but to comply.

It’s hard to conceive that AEP can buy half interest in an entire generating plant in West Virginia for millions less that it would take to put “scrubbers” on the smokestacks at the Big Sandy plant.

Coal production in Kentucky fell in 2012 to its lowest level in nearly 50 years and 4,068 jobs were eliminated, almost all of them in East Kentucky.

Those figures were depressing but the 2013 statistics no doubt will be even worse. Pike County lost its position as the state’s leading coal producing county.

The new leader is Union County in West Kentucky where all of the coal production comes from underground mines in that relatively flat terrain along the Ohio River.

Major utilities are moving away from coal in favor of natural gas because it is cheaper and burns cleaner than coal, helping meet standards of the Clean Air Act.

Regardless of who or what is to blame for coal’s decline, the in-your-face reality is that coal mining is not the career of the future.

It is obvious that the historic “boom or bust” economic cycles of coal again strongly have shifted downward, perhaps permanently.

For years, Kentuckians have talked about diversifying the economy to ease our dependence on coal. But coal jobs paid well and no one thought they would ever end.

Bumper stickers and license plates remind us that “coal keeps the lights on” but they don’t tell us for how long.

Hopefully, it will be long enough to train for another job.