McConnell Must Focus on Transition, not Rhetoric

by Ivy Brashear

Senator Mitch McConnell followed up his recent trip to eastern Kentucky with an editorial in the Hazard Herald that makes some interesting and misleading claims about coal mining in the region. Even more importantly, it avoids comment on the critical question we should all be asking: What are we going to do to build a new economy as coal in eastern Kentucky goes away?//>
McConnell wrote that  “President Obama’s policies have raised energy rates, decreased domestic energy production, and cost jobs,” and that “a barrage” of EPA regulations has strangled the coal industry. After four years, he says, “it is clear this administration has declared war on coal.” 
Since this President was elected, his policies and the EPA have been blamed for the decline of coal. Yet serious and consistent evidence points to major changes in the economy of coal that deserve the primary blame. McConnell’s repeating of this “EPA is the problem” story continues to get in the way of the critical conversation about what is next for our economy.
The reasons for Appalachia’s coal-production decline are more complex and varied than McConnell lets on. The meteoric rise in natural gas production and the rapid decline of easily minable coal in Appalachia are certainly factors. Stricter EPA Clean Air Act regulation that drives utilities to shutter coal-fired power plants in favor of cleaner-burning natural gas plants also plays a role. The international coal market, which is growing fastest in Asia, relies heavily on western coal from Wyoming’s Powder River Basin because it takes less time to transport it to Asia. 
Recent data do show that production and employment in 2012 was down in eastern Kentucky mines, but the numbers also show that coal production and employment in western Kentucky mines actually slightly increased in 2012. If a war on coal actually were raging in Kentucky, then mines in the western half of the state would be experiencing employment and production casualties, too.
If a step is taken back from the “war on coal” debate, it’s clear to see all the tangible ways that Appalachia’s economy can be improved. 

A recent University of Kentucky report found the forestry industry brought almost $10 billion to the state’s economy last year. Some of the most beautiful and valuable forests in the state are found in Eastern Kentucky. What forms of marketing assistance, technical support or financing could grow more forest-based jobs or better support landowners in the region? 
The local food economy is also already well on its way to becoming a great network for small-scale agriculture. What else could we be doing to support institutional buying from local growers? There’s also the growing tourism sector in Eastern Kentucky, which brings thousands of people into the region every year that spend their money locally. Last year, Eastern Kentucky counties saw $1 billion in tourism spending according to a new report from the Kentucky Tourism Arts and Heritage Cabinet.
There’s much room to build on existing work in the region and create stronger entrepreneurial support networks that identify potential business owners from within and then help them start and maintain their businesses.  
Coal miners have been laid off in droves within the last couple of years – more than 4,000 in Eastern Kentucky last year alone. What is being done to help these hard-working people transition their skills into new and more diverse fields of work? Eastern Kentucky miners could be important entrepreneurs as we move forward. There should be more job-training programs established and focus on sectors into which former coal miners could transition. 
These are just a few of the opportunities that could help transform Appalachia’s economy to make it more diverse and sustainable for the future. Our leaders should be focused on supporting each and every one of them, instead of diluting debate about Appalachia’s future by oversimplifying the real issues facing the region with “war on coal” rhetoric. 
That type of language reduces the debate to an “us verses them” dichotomy that drives wedges between opposing sides and rarely allows for collaboration or reasoned discussion that could advance economic transition in the region.
Kentucky, and every other Appalachian coal state, needs leaders who are willing to advance the diversification of the Appalachian economy through these and other key sectors that will transform the region’s future into one that is bright, sustainable and successful. We need leaders who are thinking about the long-term viability of the region and its workforce, not those who fixate on political posturing and divisive rhetoric. 
Coal has been an integral part of Appalachia’s past, and it will continue to be a part of its future for many years to come. We have to face difficult facts; its relevance in our future is in serious decline. Many Appalachians and many in the coal industry have accepted that, with Alpha Natural Resources saying in its latest earnings report that the decline in Appalachian coal production is a “structural phenomenon.” 
What we need now is for McConnell, as well as several other coal-state politicians, to accept these facts, deal with the real issues in front of us and start working toward economic transition for the region’s future. 
Photo of Thurmond Depot by Frank Kehren, used under Creative Commons.