The Gotterdammerung of King Coal

By Art Menius

Original publication on January 15, 2012

At the start of 2012, Central Appalachia faces a profound economic and social transition driven by global and national concerns about the effects of the product of its coal monoeconomy. Just as it took 150 years after its discovery near Coal River, WV for coal to establish its economic hegemony in the region, the Gotterdammerung of King Coal will ultimately take some time, but likely just a decade or less. Communities, for the first time, must confront and make the choices necessary to control their own economic futures. The region is grappling with the reality to that no price point or quality, no amount of political power or mass rallies, no level of threats and intimidation, no degree of propaganda can keep alive an industry when the world rejects its outputs.

In a recent Smart Planet article “Regulation and the Decline of Coal Power” “Energy Futurist” Chris Neider explores the substantial non-regulatory issues accelerating the decline of the Appalachian coal market. Neider identifies, in order:

  1. Price, especially in comparison to natural gas, rendered ever less expensive by shale gas, asserting that gas is “now actually cheaper than low-sulfur bituminous coal from Central Appalachia. Only coal from the low-sulfur Powder River Basin of Wyoming is cheaper, at $0.71 per million BTU…. Central Appalachian coal has ceased to be competitive on price largely because those mining operations are much older.” The relative cost of natural gas for electrical power generation has decreased in six years from almost five and half that of coal to just 1.2.
  2. “Regulatory uncertainty,” rather than onerous regulations rendering conversion to gas being the safe choice
  3. Age of coal power generation plants meaning natural gas fired plants will replace them.

This is the just the most recent clear statement of the seemingly obvious realities of coal’s demise in Central Appalachia. It reinforces the stark Associated Press report from late September 2011, “Appalachia faces steep coal decline.” That article notes the finger pointing at Obama regulations, then brings up “something a change in administrations cannot fix. The region’s thick, easy-to-reach seams of coal are running out, forcing many operators to shift to cheaper and more destructive mining methods that draw heavier environmental regulation.” Even the Wall Street Journal back on July 30, 2009 screamed “Once Hot Coal Piles up as Demand Cools.” The same day I read that, my neighbor was dumping more coal into the piles in eastern Kentucky.

A great frustration of living in the region was seeing up close the coal industry’s propaganda machine assuring the people that coal had a long future in the region and besides, in the unspoken, underlying message, coal was the only hope they had for lucrative employment. Former Kentucky governor and veteran coalman Paul Patton expressed forcefully in July 2009 the social psychology of a region that has come to believe that coal is its only economic option. “You can’t have a modern society and a pristine environment. You can’t say you want all the benefits [of development] and then ban something every time human life is affected. You just can’t.” Without mining in Eastern Kentucky, “The population will be severely decreased,” Patton said. “There’s not an alternative source of base income aside from coal.… Well, once the coal goes away, I just don’t see what you do to keep the show goin’.” Check out this site for a program that pushes and rewards “coal education” in the public schools. I would see their inserts in local papers with photos of students and teachers who had received its CEDAR cash awards.

The industry and its allies blame regulation for the problems of a commodity industry controlled by global economics. President Obama’s July 2009 appointment of Joseph Main, a retired safety and health administrator for the United Mine Workers of America, to head the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) did signal a shift in regulatory oversight from the former industry officials typically appointed by prior administrations. Similarly, the Environmental Protection Agency entered into a memorandum of understanding with the Department of the Interior and the Army Corps of Engineers to implement “an Interagency Action Plan (IAP) designed to significantly reduce the harmful environmental consequences of Appalachian surface coal mining operations, while ensuring that future mining remains consistent with federal law.”

Nonetheless, Neider concludes:

So in reply to the coal-fired power sector’s bleating about regulatory uncertainty, I say: The only uncertainty is how quickly, and how much, the noose tightens around your neck.… [T]here is no arguing about price. As long as the shale gas phenomenon can bring gas to market for under $4 per million BTU, the economics are tilting in its favor. The cost of renewables will continue to drop, while the cost of coal will continue to rise. That’s the hard reality of price, and it has nothing to do with regulatory uncertainty.

Nieder’s calculus does not factor in the effects of policy changes by foreign governments, such as France and Germany getting out of the coal power generation business altogether in the late 20th Century, and grassroots political action in American cities and campuses. Last fall National Public Radio reported on Bellingham, Washington’s anti-coal action Bellingham, Washington fights against global coal. Coal-Free UNC is one example of coal abolition groups achieving success on college campuses nationwide.

Coalfields that began to be developed a century ago are nearing the end of their productivity. Although Appalachian coal continues to be produced at relatively high rates, the regional economy is in steep decline. The coal industry is highly mechanized and employs fewer miners each year. Remaining coal seams are increasingly difficult to mine, requiring radical techniques such as mountaintop removal. Additionally, most of the potential for hydropower in the region has been tapped, as have most of the natural gas reserves.

Central Appalachia presents profound challenges to social change and sustainable economic development: individuals and communities are poor, tax revenues are low, social services providers are understaffed and lack capacity to conduct outreach, public institutions and infrastructure inadequate and inadequately maintained. The region’s economy is built for industrial coal, timber, and gas extraction. Today, the employment opportunities that these sectors once provided for the population are dwindling due to declining reserves and increasing automation, and the remaining jobs are in jeopardy.

If the world is to wean itself from dependence on fossil fuels, central Appalachian is the place where we shall find solutions. Like Sam Cooke sang, a change is gonna come, but not without serious resistance to both the change and the underlying reality.

Not just this transition, but the mere discussion of this change has become emotionally charged is within the coalfields, echoing the polarization throughout America. In a region trapped by monoeconomy, those who believe that coal is the only option, their only hope of a decent paycheck are not disposed for thoughtful debate about economic development theory. Indeed, coal companies work to frame the debate as being between coal and unemployment rather than the extractive economy and alternatives to it that keep the wealth within Appalachian communities. Those activists, however, who approach the issues only from an often polemical and polarizing environmental perspective play into the hands of the coal companies by not developing and offering alternative employment at comparable pay levels.

“This is a war zone; it is a civil war,” says West Virginia activist Judy Bonds of Coal River Mountain Watch, which advocates not surface mining Coal River Mountain in order to harness its long term potential for wind generated power. Bonds exemplifies a social phenomenon described by Jeff Biggers, author of The United States of Appalachia and a new book on coal, Reckoning at Eagle Creek (The Nation-Basic Books). “Those affected by mountaintop removal and coal-fired plants have emerged as the most informed and articulate spokespeople against the ravages of the out-of-state coal companies. In effect, it is the gross indifference and recklessness of Big Coal that turns former coal miners and farmers and shopkeepers into the nation’s leading coal and climate change activists.”

Regional musical culture already reflects the tectonic shift. From the recent album Jewel Ridge Coal by Tazwell, Virginia’s Jeni and Billy to the 80 years of recordings compiled in 2007’s Music of Coal, musicians have addressed issues directly related to coal. Writing in the Wall Street Journal, reviewer Barry Mazor described Don’t Turn Back, the career-defining June 2009 release from heretofore traditional eastern Kentucky bluegrass singer-songwriter Dale Ann Bradley as expressing “the very theme of change and continuity.”

In face of fact, the industry even invented a complete myth, “Clean Coal,” which doesn’t exist even if President Obama believes in it. The industry engaged an ad agency, R&R, to market “Clean Coal.” Guggenheim fellow Richard Coniff demolished the “The Myth of Clean Coal” in 2008. While at Yale Environment 360, check out the 20 minute web video “Leveling Appalachia: The Legacy of Mountaintop Removal Mining.”

Industry supporters, such as former US Senator from Kentucky Jim Bunning similar championed a technology developed by desperate Nazis to use nearly fifty gallons of water to convert coal into a gallon of petrol. “Coal-to-Gas” seemed to enjoy but a brief fad in 2006 and 2007, mostly around Pike County, Kentucky, “America’s Energy Capitol.” The AMI film “True Cost of Coal” captures some of the propaganda efforts as well as exploring the emotional hardship of having a loved one working in the mines. Yet despite all the doubts, in 2011 construction of an actual coal-to-gas plant began in nearby Mingo County, West Virginia.

Even when central Appalachian coal could compete on cash price, the human and environmental cost was tremendous. In December 1993 an Atlantic Magazine article, “The True Cost of Coal,” brought some of these issues into mainstream attention. So have a plethora of good films from Appalshop and elsewhere. More than half-century before, Hindman, Kentucky-based novelist and poet James Still provided a vivid portrait of the human cost of cheap coal in the gripping River of Earth. Contemporary Appalachian novelist Silas House was nearly as eloquent in describing the environmental disaster of central Appalachia in a recent New York Times op-ed contribution. The online journal Southern Spaces used multi-media to offer a much less poetic, but equally powerful presentation of the effects of mountaintop removal coal mining (MTR).

These pieces suggest how the role coal producing areas have played in providing the nation with electrical power have shaped them in deleterious ways. They demonstrate who is affected by energy policy and how that policy helps or harms them. How those areas’ efforts to power past coal will shape a shared vision not just for themselves but for the world. Have coal producing areas not carried more than their share of the burdens associated with energy production for the world? Indeed, the extractive industries have so adversely effected the people of the region that they had to be, starting in the late 19th century, redefined as less than full citizens, as the “other,” as “hillbillies,” ignorant and dangerous like the rapists in “Deliverance.”

Self-described ”presentist historian” Ron Eller’s most recent book, Uneven Ground: Appalachia Since 1945 (Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 2008) uses the past as perspective to frame and explore an historic social and economic struggle unfolding today as communities strive to take control of their economic destiny.

The coal producing areas of Appalachia demonstrate the hollow failure of 20th Century American concepts of development based on concepts of bigger is better, more is more, and unchecked growth advances the good of all. Just as burning coal has produced the negative environmental impacts that endanger its viability as a product, the efforts to develop Appalachia have not eliminated poverty, poor education, poor health, or unemployment. Indeed, a convincing case can be made that fifty years of development have exacerbated many of these negative factors. Central Appalachia today shows what happens when traditional development does not bring a better quality of life and how that reshapes the culture of an American region that has been a cultural exporter as well.

Central Appalachia of the early 21st century can be viewed as struggling to overcome what former presidential advisor Van Jones called the “suicide economy” of the 20th century at its most self-destructive. This connects with broad, global issues as the planet nears a tipping point for its environment and presents them in real, human, on the ground terms.

The results of a century of the “Saudi Arabia” of coal hardly resemble the Persian Gulf excesses of the U.A.E. Central Appalachia became globalized earlier than the rest of the USA making it dependent on the world economy much longer than insulated regional economies. Appalachian exploitation began in the 1880s and took off with the railroads, built to extract the raw materials and complete the takeover of Appalachia. Railroads polluted and destroyed, allowed clear cutting and destruction of self-sufficiency. The Great Depression hit coal country in 1927. This followed the peak coal employment of 700,000 in the early 1920s when a miner could earn $20 to $50 a day.

Central Appalachia is economically colonized, because it is not in control of its own economy. Limited job opportunities have created decades of “brain drain” in the Appalachian regions. Citizens in most counties of central Appalachia have 75% or less of the mean US education. The aggregate statistics for distressed counties in Appalachia are stunning and stark; according to 2006 Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC) statistics, the numbers include $10,953 per capita income (40% of the national mean) and 30.81% poverty rate (2.5 times the national average). In Appalachia, 116 counties exceed 1.5 times the poverty rate. During 2008-2011 recession the Appalachian region fared far worse than the nation and was battered by job losses and structural economic changes, losing all of its job gains since 2000. More than twenty years after the elimination of the broad form deed, 72% of the surface rights and 89% of the mineral rights in central Appalachian remain absentee owned.

Since Appalachian counties are predominantly rural, low-income people are often far from existing government service providers, health care facilities, and potential job or training opportunities. Public infrastructure is often poorly maintained and unattractive to new business. The labor pool is compromised by low educational levels, high illiteracy, and poor public health (in West Virginia, for example, 25% of the population lives with disabilities). A profound sense of hopelessness and lack of personal empowerment leads to high school dropout (50% in some communities), teen pregnancy, and generations of impoverished single mothers.

Often, well-conceived initiatives are imported without broad community input and understanding of the unique history, character, challenges, and strengths of the region. With less than 2% of American private foundation resources being granted to rural areas, according to the Chronicle of Philanthropy, fundraising in Appalachia is doubly challenged.

Health clinics, job training, and new business ventures require not only financial resources, but also specialists such as planners, financial experts, architects, teachers, health professionals, and lawyers. Entrenched, stagnated public policy has not generated sustainable economic alternatives, which frustrates individuals, communities, and grassroots groups poised for significant positive change. Engaging community members in a hopeful and sustainable way is identified as a challenge in every community.

Throughout the twentieth century, the Southern Appalachian Mountains were a major player as developed and emerging economies have struggled to balance the broad public need for cheap reliable electricity with the necessity of good jobs and a healthy environment. Even the first six years of this century brought a boom with a burst of Chinese consumption paired with high gas prices. In her book Coal: a Human History, Barbara Freese offers an in-depth explanation of how the development of the Appalachian coalfields in the early twentieth century influenced modern corporate structure, the organization of industrial unions, and the environmental movement. Moving to the present, Freese argues that increased centralization of the electrical grid over the past fifty years has relegated coal to the attic of our national consciousness:

From the consumer’s perspective, coal has virtually disappeared – its sooty black chunks magically transformed into squeaky clean electrons. Now that nine out of ten tons of the nation’s coal vanishes into power plants, many Americans can harbor the illusion that coal is no longer a major energy source or a big environmental threat, even while the nation burns more of it than ever.

Thus, Appalachia has in this century suffered an environmental spill 30 times the size of Exxon Valdese and you never heard about it. Thus, West Virginia has its own Bopal chemical disaster 30 years ago and you never heard about it.

The upside-down model of community and economic development in much of Appalachia ignores compelling evidence that the strength of a region’s economy and its communities is not based on infusions of outside capital, the existence of industrial parks, or a vast pool of low-wage labor. Rather the building block is social infrastructure — the web of civic society, underdeveloped in the mountains, that binds individuals together in healthy, democratic relationships and creates a common sense of purpose on which good decisions about the future can be based.

Citing both global environmental concerns and the decreasing amount of coal in the ground, Eller is among those who want to wean Appalachia from its historical dependence on coal. In his keynote address to the East Kentucky Leadership Conference in April 2009, Eller said he saw “growing potential for local and regionally coordinated tourism.” The region could have “cultural tourism based around folk traditions, music or arts and crafts.” Eller also says the region could support summer camps, mountaineering sites and weekend escapes for young professionals who live in Kentucky’s cities. “We have to do two things,” he said: “Look for other alternatives [to coal mining] and stop limiting those alternatives by destroying the terrain.” Eller maintains that “public resources have not gone toward looking for an alternative to coal mining” for economic development in Eastern Kentucky.

The emerging green economy provides an alternative that can be tested in central Appalachia. The Mountain Association for Community Economic Development (MACED), based in Berea, advocates for entrepreneurship and microbusinesses with five or fewer employees as the key to the region’s economic future. MACED President Justin Maxson argues, “If you add just one job at 10 percent of the microbusinesses in Kentucky, that’s 5,800 new jobs in the state.” According to Maxson, current economic-development strategies “overlook an important swath of entrepreneurship in the mountains.” Given the natural and cultural assets of the region, the creative class theories of community cultural development for urban areas posited by Dr. Richard Florida of the University of Toronto can be transplanted to central Appalachia to rebuild communities one artist at a time.

Strong non-profits in the region will need funding through the establishment of community foundations. Central Appalachia faces, in philanthropy, a last chance opportunity to capture the some of the wealth of Baby Boomers who migrated from the area, but retain an emotional tie. That connection only rarely passes on to their children.

The essential aspect in each case will be local economic self-determination. Solutions will be built on the ground by those directly affected. As night comes to coal, daylight comes to the Cumberlands.



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