Journal-Times (Grayson, KY)

April 10, 2013

East Kentucky needs new game plan for coal


April 10, 2013 —     Politicians complaining about the so-called “war on coal” by the Obama Administration were painfully accurate, according to a new state report released last week.

    The study revealed that coal production in the state last year reached its lowest level in nearly 50 years and 4,068 jobs were eliminated, almost all of them in East Kentucky.

    Increased competition from natural gas, higher mining costs and stiffer environmental rules were cited as the primary reasons for the decline.

    Production in the East Kentucky coalfields dropped nearly 30 percent in 2012. 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.

    The Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet said East Kentucky coal output is down more than 50 percent since 2000 and down more than 62 percent from its all-time high in 1990.

    The state report noted that West Kentucky produced more coal than East Kentucky during the last three months of 2012. That has not happened since 1960.

    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.

    For the first time in its history, Morehead State University is heating its campus buildings totally with natural gas, primarily because of cost and environmental considerations.

    East Kentucky mining interests often were accused of having an attitude of “take the best and leave the rest” because they focused on removing larger, more profitable coal seams.

    Today, the remaining coal in the mountains is more difficult and more expensive to extract, contributing to the production decline.

    Regardless of who is to blame, the harsh reality is that coal mining is the not the job market of the future in East Kentucky.

    Those of us who call this region home have always been reluctant to leave because of our emotional ties to family.

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

    For years, we’ve talked about diversifying the economy of East Kentucky to ease our dependence on coal.

    The state has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in infrastructure like roads, utilities, public school technology and new facilities for community and technical colleges and universities.

    Now it’s time to figure out how to use this trained workforce to bring in good jobs not related to coal.