Eastern Kentucky jobs outlook: health care and more broadband

August 11, 2014

crouch1Ron Crouch is the director of research and statistics for the Education and Workforce Development Cabinet in Frankfort. He says a growing health care industry in Eastern Kentucky should help offset jobs lost to coal’s decline. Photo by Mark Mahan

 

There is more talk than usual about the need to create jobs and a more diverse economy in Eastern Kentucky because of the coal industry’s decline.

It made me wonder: what are the latest trends? For some answers, I called Ron Crouch, director of research and statistics for the Education and Workforce Development Cabinet. He previously headed the Kentucky State Data Center for two decades and is better than anyone I know at analyzing this sort of information.

People are alarmed because coal-industry employment in Eastern Kentucky has dropped to about 7,300 — half what it was five years ago. Coal-mining jobs have been important to the region because they pay well: about $65,000 a year.

President Barack Obama’s critics have blamed stricter environmental regulations for the sudden drop in coal employment. But the biggest factors have been cheap natural gas and the fact that Eastern Kentucky’s best coal seams have been depleted over the past century; the coal that is left is more costly (and environmentally damaging) to mine.

But Crouch notes that coal employment in Eastern Kentucky has been declining steadily for more than six decades — even accounting for periodic booms and busts — mainly because of mechanization. Coal production peaked in 1990, but coal employment peaked in 1950, when there were 67,000 miners.

Some Eastern Kentucky leaders have pursued manufacturing as a source of new jobs. But Crouch says the long-term prospects for manufacturing aren’t too good, either, also because of automation.

“Manufacturing is coming back to the United States, but not necessarily manufacturing jobs,” he said. “We’re producing far more goods, but with far fewer workers.”

Still, Crouch sees hopeful signs for Eastern Kentucky.

While the region still lags the state in college degrees, high school graduation rates have improved significantly, as have the number of people completing other levels of training between high school and a bachelor’s degree. Many new, good-paying jobs are for people with that level of education.

Those areas include health care as well as professional, scientific and technical services. Some of these jobs pay well. For example, the number of registered nursing jobs, which pay about $55,000, is growing significantly.

Eastern Kentucky’s health care industry should see big growth in coming years. One reason is demographics. Baby Boomers are now entering their 60s and 70s and will require more health services. Another reason is the Affordable Care Act.

“You’re going to see a huge increase in the number of people in East Kentucky who have health insurance,” Crouch said.

Because Eastern Kentucky families are smaller than in the past, there will be less pressure for young people to leave.

“You now have a population with more people in their 40s, 50s and 60s than in their teens and 20s,” Crouch said. “If those young people can get the education and training they need after high school, there will be jobs for them in East Kentucky.”

But many of the growing economic sectors in the region, such as health care, have traditionally been dominated by women, while shrinking sectors, such as mining and manufacturing, have been mostly male. In some Eastern Kentucky counties, women now have higher employment rates than men.

“The good news is the economy has been transitioning to a broader economy,” Crouch said. “But how do you transition a population of males who have been involved in mining and manufacturing to jobs in professional, technical services and food services and health care, which have largely been female?”

Crouch said improving broadband service in Eastern Kentucky, which has the state’s poorest connections to the Internet, is vital.

“That would accelerate the growth in higher-skilled jobs,” he said.

Crouch is troubled that many Eastern Kentucky counties have high percentages of working-age people not in the formal labor force. He thinks many are “getting by” in the cash and barter economy, some of which is illegal.

He also is concerned that much of the job growth has been in low-wage service industries. Because the legal minimum wage hasn’t kept pace with inflation, full-time work in many low-wage jobs doesn’t produce a living wage for a family.

“The good news is that East Kentucky is not having a brain drain, despite what people think; it’s having a brain gain,” he said. “But, as the saying goes, we’re halfway home and have a long way to go.”


Kentucky needs leadership for change, not the politics of fear

June 8, 2014

I have had mixed emotions since the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced its long-awaited plan to reduce coal-fired power plant pollution, setting a goal to cut carbon dioxide emissions 30 percent by 2030 from 2005 levels.

I felt happy that my government was finally taking some action to fight manmade climate change, which threatens humanity’s safety, prosperity and future.

But I felt sad as I watched a bipartisan majority of Kentucky politicians fall all over each other to condemn this long-overdue action. Pandering to public fear may be good politics, but, in this case, it is an irresponsible failure of leadership.

SenateCandidatesRepublican Sens. Mitch McConnell and Rand Paul called the EPA’s plan illegal and vowed to repeal it. (It is legal, according to a 2007 U.S. Supreme Court ruling.)

Not to be outdone, McConnell’s Democratic challenger, Allison Lundergan Grimes, launched an ad blitz repeating the coal industry’s “war on coal” talking points.

“The Obama administration has doubled down on its war on Kentucky coal jobs and coal families,” said another industry parrot, U.S. Rep. Andy Barr, a Republican from Lexington.

State House Speaker Greg Stumbo, a Democrat from Prestonsburg, called the pollution-cutting plan “a dumb-ass policy.”

Let us review the facts:

An overwhelming majority of climate scientists think manmade carbon pollution is contributing significantly to climate change. We are already seeing the disastrous results: more frequent killer storms, droughts, shrinking glaciers and rising seas.

Public opinion polls show that a substantial majority of Americans, even in coal-dependent states, understand these realities and want stricter carbon limits.

In addition, health experts say the EPA plan will reduce cancer, heart disease and lung disease through fewer emissions of mercury, nitrogen oxide and sulfur dioxide. The American Lung Association says the plan will prevent as many as 4,000 premature deaths in its first year alone.

So why all the political nonsense? It’s simple: the coal, utility and business lobbies that fund these politicians’ campaigns will see their profits suffer, at least in the short term.

The coal industry’s disinformation campaign portrays the desire for cleaner air and water as a “war on coal.” In reality, there are two “wars” on coal, and environmental regulation has only a minor role in each.

The first “war” is one on coal-company profits. It is being waged largely by natural gas companies, whose fracking technology has produced cheaper energy and hurt coal sales. Solar, wind and other renewable energy sources pose another threat.

The second “war” is being waged by coal companies and their political allies against miners and their communities. Kentucky lost about 30,000 coal mining jobs between 1979 and 2006, mostly because of industry mechanization. Add to that a historic disregard for mine safety. Kentucky legislators recently cut the number of state safety inspections at mines from six per year to four.

It is worth noting that the EPA’s new rule could have hit Kentucky much harder had it not been for the coal-friendly administration of Gov. Steve Beshear, a Democrat. Energy Secretary Len Peters pushed a plan, which the EPA adopted, to give states flexibility in achieving carbon-reduction goals. It set different targets for each state. Kentucky will be required to cut power-plant emissions by 18 percent, much lower than the national average of 30 percent.

Kentucky now gets more than 90 percent of its electricity from coal. The state has some of the nation’s cheapest power because the true cost of coal mining and burning to our health and environment has never been reflected in the rates.

America is gradually moving away from coal toward cleaner energy sources. This will happen no matter how loud and long Kentucky politicians scream. Unless this state acts aggressively to develop alternative energy sources to eventually replace diminishing coal reserves, Kentucky will be left behind — again.

Entrenched business interests have always predicted that each new environmental regulation would destroy the economy. It has never happened. Instead, regulation has sparked innovation that created new jobs and economic opportunities and made America a healthier place to live.

More limits on pollution will raise electricity rates in the short term. But Kentuckians will be rewarded with better health, a less-damaged environment, more innovation and a stronger economy in the future.

Change is hard, but it is necessary. Forward-thinking business people and citizens must demand that our politicians stop pandering to fear and become the leaders we need to make this inevitable transition as painless as possible. A brighter future never comes to those who insist on living in the past.


Could Eastern Kentucky’s coalfields learn from Eastern Germany?

January 25, 2014

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An old mine in eastern Germany is used for a film screening.  The metal construction is the retooled front end of an overburden spreader that will function as a pier once the lake in the former mining pit has filled.  Photo by Frank Doering

 

Coal is still mined in this region, but the industry employs only a fraction of the people it did for more than a century. Huge tracts of damaged land must be reclaimed. Leaders struggle to build a new economy, create jobs and keep young people from leaving.

Eastern Kentucky? No, eastern Germany.

Frank Doering, a German-born freelance photographer who has lived in Lexington for nearly two decades, spent three years documenting the land and people of eastern Germany’s Lausitz region.

Except for the flat topography, this area the size of Rhode Island has much in common with the coal-rich mountains of Central Appalachia. And it could offer a few ideas for Kentucky leaders grappling with the same issues, Doering said.

Coalscapes, an exhibit of Doering’s compelling photographs, opened last Thursday at Institute 193, the small, nonprofit gallery at 193 N. Limestone. The free show continues through Feb. 26.

140123FrankDoering0006Doering, 55, grew up in western Germany and earned degrees in German literature, history and philosophy. He came to this country to earn a Ph.D. at Princeton University, where he met his wife, Wallis Miller, an architectural historian.

They lived for several years in Europe, where Doering worked as a cognitive science researcher at the École Polytechnique in Paris. Miller was hired in 1994 by the University of Kentucky, where she is an associate professor of architecture.

Doering taught philosophy at Johns Hopkins University and the University of Cincinnati before quitting in 2000 to pursue photography, a hobby since his youth. He now works on personal projects between commercial commissions.

The Coalscapes project grew out of a 2004 trip to Canada, where the couple visited a huge, open-pit asbestos mine.

“It was visually overwhelming,” Doering said. “I’ve always been interested in the industrial underpinnings of society and the scale on which it happens. This was a chilling landscape because it was all manmade.”

The experience made Doering want to photograph large surface mines in Eastern Kentucky, but the mountain topography and lack of access made that difficult.

When Miller made a research trip to Berlin, Doering discovered the Lausitz region, less than two hours away. It had been an industrial powerhouse of the former East Germany, but state-owned industries there all but collapsed after German reunification in 1990.

Only three of 17 former mines still operate there, he said, but they are vast. More than 136 villages have been obliterated by mining, and more are targeted by Germany’s decades-long mine-planning process.

The region has some of the world’s richest deposits of lignite coal, used primarily to fuel nearby electric power plants. Despite Germany’s ambitious commitments to solar and wind energy, it uses a lot of coal and will for decades.

Still, Lausitz is economically depressed. Since the Berlin Wall fell, many former miners have been employed by the government, which has spent billions to dismantle old industrial plants and reclaim former surface mines.

“Many people there feel they have gotten the short end of the stick since reunification,” Doering said, adding that the region has a stigma within Germany similar to what Appalachia has in this country. “There is a distrust of outsiders.”

But the more trips Doering made to Lausitz, where he rented an apartment, the more locals opened up to him and the better his pictures got. The project was supported by a grant from the Graham Foundation in Chicago.

Although initially attracted by the raw landscape, he said, “The project took on much more of a human side. The industrial history and the people’s life stories are unbelievably interesting.”

Doering’s photographs document efforts to restore old mine pits as lakes that will attract tourists. Former mines have even been used for concerts and film screenings, and even public art installations.

There is also a push for “industrial” tourism — with mining companies building observation platforms so visitors can watch the mining process, which Doering said is fascinating because it is done on such a super-human scale. For example, the conveyor assemblies that remove soil above the coal seams are twice as long as the Eiffel Tower is tall.

“People from different backgrounds come and look at stuff they wouldn’t normally look at,” he said. “It starts some unexpected conversations” about balancing energy needs and the environment — conversations that rarely happen in an Appalachia polarized by “war on coal” rhetoric.

One metal fabricating company, which used to make industrial buildings, now makes innovative housing for locals and vacation rentals. It reminds Doering of the UK College of Design’s efforts to retool idled houseboat factories near Somerset to make energy-efficient modular housing.

Doering said his photos have been used in Germany to both document and promote the sparsely populated region, where leaders realize they must rebuild to high standards. “It had better be cutting-edge stuff, because that’s the only way to attract outsiders who might pour some money into the area,” he said.

Doering said he doesn’t know enough about Eastern Kentucky to say what lessons its leaders might learn from Germany. But he said the keys to progress there have been locals and outsiders overcoming traditional fault lines to find creative solutions.

“They have forged some odd alliances,” he said. “They have found a way to work together and get stuff done.”

 

If you go

  • What: Coalscapes, a photography exhibit
  • Where: Institute 193, 193 N. Limestone.
  • When: Now until Feb. 26. The gallery is open 11 a.m.-6 p.m., Wednesday through Saturday, and by appointment. Admission is free.
  • More information: Institute193.org, Coalscapes.com, Doeringphoto.com
Read more here: http://www.kentucky.com/2014/01/25/3052745/tom-eblen-eastern-germany-eastern.html#storylink=cpy

 

Click on each photo to see larger image and read caption:


Will SOAR be a new beginning, or just more talk about Appalachia?

December 8, 2013

You have to wonder: Will the Shaping Our Appalachian Region summit Monday in Pikeville be the start of something big, or just another feel-good effort that doesn’t amount to much?

More than 1,500 people have registered to attend the conference called by Gov. Steve Beshear and U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers, who said they wanted ideas from throughout Eastern Kentucky for strategies to diversify the region’s economy.

There have been dozens of conferences on this topic over the years, but this one offers some hopeful signs. For one thing, it is the first high-level, bipartisan effort. Politicians who usually dance to the tune of the all-powerful coal industry are actually asking other people what they think.

But once the talking is over and the reports are written, will leadership, public investment and private capital get behind the good ideas? Will anything really change?

soarlogoCreating a sustainable, broadly prosperous economy in a region that has never really had one will be a monumental challenge.

Eastern Kentucky has never lacked for intelligent, hard-working people. But it has been handicapped by isolation, lack of education and opportunity, corrupt politics and powerful economic forces beyond its borders and control.

Since the late 1800s, the region has gone from subsistence farming to large-scale timber extraction to increasingly destructive methods of coal mining. The result has been a classic colonial economy, where most of the wealth flowed out of the region, or to a small local elite, while a large underclass survived on welfare and charity.

This cycle of poverty and dependence has led to hopelessness, drug abuse and other social problems, as was outlined in the most recent chapters of the excellent series Fifty Years of Night, by Herald-Leader reporters John Cheves and Bill Estep.

Can a new and different chapter be written for Eastern Kentucky?

In calling this summit, Beshear and Rogers cited the loss of more than 6,000 coal jobs over the past two years. But they wisely avoided their usual “war on coal” rhetoric, which blames the industry’s problems on long-overdue environmental regulation and enforcement.

The main reasons for declining coal production are cheaper Western coal and even cheaper natural gas. Besides, coal employment in Eastern Kentucky has been falling for three decades, from a high of 37,505 in 1981, primarily because of industry mechanization and a shift from deep to surface mining.

Eastern Kentucky’s current coal employment is 7,951, the lowest in generations, and that is unlikely to improve much. Coal will continue to be a presence. But because the large, easy-to-mine reserves are gone, most of the coal jobs will never return.

There are no “magic bullet” solutions to replacing Eastern Kentucky’s coal-based economy. (Not that coal itself was ever a magic bullet. Even when coal employment and production were at their peaks, the coal counties were still among the nation’s poorest.)

The citizens group Kentuckians for the Commonwealth has some good ideas about what a new Eastern Kentucky economy should aspire to. Those principles would be a good starting point for Monday’s conversations.

KFTC’s vision calls for a “just” transition that promotes “innovation, self-reliance and broadly held local wealth.” It urges more citizen participation in decision-making, and calls for restoration and protection of the environment and public health. It also urges leaders to “consider the effects of decisions on future generations.”

Tourism and outdoor recreation are often mentioned as potential economic opportunities, but that will require cleaning up some of strip mining’s environmental damage. Kentucky should lobby for money to do that work from the federal Abandoned Mine Lands fund, which could keep thousands of former coal miners employed for years.

Home-grown entrepreneurship and technology jobs are other often-mentioned possibilities to building Eastern Kentucky’s middle class, but they will require serious state investments in education and infrastructure to attract private capital. Kentucky’s tax-phobic politicians and the citizens who elect them have never been willing to make such serious investment, and that must change if anything else is to.

Shaping a new Eastern Kentucky economy will require a lot of creativity, commitment and hard work, not to mention leadership, inclusion and accountability.

There will be many obstacles to overcome, not the least of which is cynicism. It will be a long process. But Monday in Pikeville is as good a time and place to start as any.


How about some real leadership rather than a phony ‘War on Coal’

July 13, 2013

Kentucky has plenty of politicians and business executives. But at this critical moment in history, what it really needs are leaders.

President Barack Obama recently decided to bypass a dysfunctional Congress and have the Environmental Protection Agency enforce the Clean Air Act by setting limits on carbon pollution from coal-burning power plants. It was about time.

Scientific consensus is overwhelming that man-made carbon and other pollutants are warming Earth’s climate with disastrous results — floods, droughts, monster storms, melting glaciers and rising sea levels. It already has inflicted billions of dollars worth of damage, and it threatens many aspects of civilization.

The nation’s 600 or so coal-burning power plants produce about 40 percent of our carbon pollution. Plus, studies increasingly show other tolls that coal mining and burning take on our land, water, air and health.

The transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy will shape the global economy of the future. The sooner the United States gets behind that trend, the more economically competitive it will be. But changing the status quo is hard, especially when entrenched special interests have much to lose.

Most Kentucky politicians’ reaction to Obama’s call for a less-polluted nation was predictable: “War on coal!” they screamed.

A few of our more willfully ignorant legislators voiced skepticism about climate change, or implied that it was somehow God’s will. Most others just complained that improving public health and protecting Kentucky’s land, water and air would cost too much money and eliminate some existing jobs.

The coal industry has long been one of the most powerful forces in Kentucky. And it has resisted every significant effort to limit the environmental damage it does. The multimillion-dollar public relations campaign built around the “war on coal” theme is just the latest example.

But the current slump in Appalachia’s coal industry is largely the result of cheap natural gas, rather than government regulation. And with the richest reserves already mined, many Kentucky coal operators must resort to ever-more costly and destructive methods of surface mining to claw out what remains.

When the coal is all gone in the not-to-distant future, what then? Will Kentucky be positioned for future success? Or will it simply be left with a lot of damaged land, water and people as the world’s economy moves on?

Leaders would approach this problem much differently than most Kentucky politicians and executives are. Since Kentucky still has coal, and coal will by default be a big part of the nation’s energy mix for decades to come, leaders would champion efforts to mine and burn it more responsibly. They also would double down on research to see if “clean coal” technology can become a reality rather than an oxymoron.

Leaders would lobby the Obama administration and Congress for funds to help Kentucky make the transition, soften costly adjustments and create sustainable energy jobs. Remember how tobacco-settlement money helped reshape Kentucky agriculture? What similar models could be created for coal counties and utility customers?

Ambitious leaders might even set a goal to make Kentucky a manufacturing center for solar panels or energy-efficient modular homes. At the least, they would set out to make Kentucky the nation’s energy-efficiency leader through smarter design of new buildings and retrofitting of old ones. Kentucky already leads the nation in energy-efficient school construction, including several of the first school buildings to generate more electricity than they consume.

The General Assembly missed an opportunity for leadership last year when it failed to pass House Bill 170, which would have required electric utilities to use increasing amounts of renewable energy and do more to help customers cut energy consumption. Leadership is needed to pass a version of that bill next year.

Simply allowing citizens and businesses to profit, rather than just break even, by feeding power they produce into the utility grid could make a big difference. With photovoltaic panel prices falling all the time, many people might be willing to invest in solar-panel systems if it could be profitable. Germany now generates 22 percent of its energy from renewable sources — much of it solar — despite having less sunshine than Kentucky.

Each major environmental regulation since the 1960s — from acid-rain legislation to auto-emissions standards — has been met with predictions of economic doom that never materialized. Instead, those regulations not only cleaned up the environment but they also provided the poke private industry needed to innovate.

The stakes of climate change are greater than anything we have faced before. We can’t risk being distracted by the fearmongers. We owe it to ourselves and our descendants to try to limit potential disaster.

Market-based solutions would be preferable to government regulation. But after the demagoguing that so-called “cap and trade” proposals got a few years ago, that seems politically impossible. Industry needs a powerful nudge to innovate, wherever it comes from.

Rather than fighting a war against progress that cannot be won, Kentucky should reinvent itself as an energy innovator. We should show the world that a state settled by pioneers can pioneer again. But that will take leadership, not business and politics as usual.

 


Authors document Robinson Forest in the hope of preserving it

May 7, 2013

 

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In their new book, “The Embattled Wilderness,” Erik Reece and James Krupa write this: “To look out over the forest’s steep ridges — slopes that novelist James Still called ‘a river of earth’ — is to understand that Robinson Forest is simultaneously one of the most biologically diverse landscapes in North America and one of the most threatened.” Photos by Tom Eblen  

 

JACKSON — As we hike uphill through beech and yellow poplar trees, a wild turkey flies out of the woods and across the trail in front of us. A few hundred yards higher, Erik Reece stops suddenly and points at a scarlet tanager foraging among the oaks.

At the crest of the ridge, we climb an old fire tower and are rewarded with a spectacular view of Robinson Forest. On this clear, spring morning, the forest looks like a rolling “river of earth,” as James Still described the natural landscape of Eastern Kentucky in his classic 1940 novel, River of Earth.

The green waves roll out in every direction until they suddenly stop at Robinson Forest’s boundary. Beyond the boundary are huge, gray scars from surface mining and the flattened, denuded remnants of “reclaimed” coal-mine land, now struggling to support foreign grasses and scrubby trees.

“We hope more people will go to Robinson Forest, but a lot of Kentuckians won’t, so we wanted them to experience it vicariously,” said Reece, co-author with James J. Krupa of the new book,The Embattled Wilderness: The Natural and Human History of Robinson Forest and the Fight for Its Future (University of Georgia Press, $24.95).

Reece will sign copies of the book from 6 to 7:30 p.m. Friday at The Morris Book Shop, 882 E. High St.

130502RobinsonForest-TE0070

Erik Reece on Lewis Fork creek in Robinson Forest.

Reece is a UK English professor best known for his award-winning 2006 book, Lost Mountain: Radical Strip Mining and the Devastation of Appalachia. Like Lost Mountain, this book has a forward by renowned Kentucky author Wendell Berry.

Krupa is a UK biology professor who over decades of study has explored every ridge and valley of the main 10,000-acre block of the 14,786-acre forest, which contains some of the state’s cleanest streams.

“It is one of the last and largest examples of the oldest, most biologically diverse ecosystem in North America — the mixed mesophytic,” the authors write in their introduction.

“Unfortunately, industrial development has churned under the mountains surrounding these 14,000 acres, turning Robinson Forest into an island of biological diversity surrounded by an ever-expanding desert,” they write, adding that there is every reason to believe that coal and timber interests want to plunder this land, too.

Reece and Krupa are both fine writers. In this small, engaging book, they alternate chapters, explaining the natural and human history of this unique corner of Breathitt, Perry and Knott counties and making a case to preserve it.

Krupa describes the geological history of Robinson Forest and the surrounding Cumberland Plateau, which was formed before there were dinosaurs, mammals or even flowering plants. These mountains were once covered by a shallow inland sea and then swamps. Dead ferns and trees sank to the bottom for thousands of years, forming peat and eventually bituminous coal.

Krupa also discusses his research into the ecological diversity of the current forest. Who knew lichens and wood rats could be so fascinating?

Reece’s chapters describe the forest’s human history, from settlement to the early 20th century, when Cincinnati business partners F.W. Mobray and E.O. Robinson bought the forest and cut virtually all of its timber.

In 1923, Robinson gave the wasted land to the University of Kentucky for research to “tend to the betterment of the people of the mountain region of Kentucky.” Under UK’s stewardship, most of the land has regenerated over the past 90 years into a second-growth version of the biologically diverse, native forest.

But coal operators, who wield considerable clout, have periodically pressured UK to allow mining in the forest. Reece said he and Krupa decided to write this book after the UK Board of Trustees’ controversial 2007 decision to clear-cut 800 acres of the main forest.

Although the forest recovered from clear-cutting a century ago, critics doubt that can happen again because of the extensive surface mining on surrounding land and the planting of invasive species as part of mine “reclamation.”

Reece said he and Krupa hope their book will prompt UK officials to rethink their management strategy for Robinson Forest and embrace a broader ecological research mission. A part of such a mission could be helping Kentucky adapt to climate change.

Specifically, the authors urge broader input into decision-making about the forest. Currently, Robinson Forest is managed by UK’s Forestry Department. Also, they want UK to separate research and revenue goals, so that there is not periodic temptation to log or mine Robinson Forest to make money for the university.

Reece is up for tenure this year, and he acknowledges this book won’t be popular in some corners of the university. But he thinks Robinson Forest is worth fighting to preserve.

He said the book was inspired by The Unforeseen Wilderness, which UK commissioned Berry to write in 1971. It advocated for preservation of the Red River Gorge at a time when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers wanted to destroy it with a flood-control dam.

“We want to give readers a sense of why Robinson Forest is worth saving,” Reece said. “If you can convince people to love something, they won’t destroy it.”

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Excerpts from the final chapter of The Embattled Wilderness

“Robinson Forest is many things: it is one of the most important eco-systems in Appalachia, it is a laboratory for crucial research and teaching, and it is a gift held in trust for future generations of Kentuckians. But it is also a model for how we must proceed in our habitation of the natural world. In fact, Robinson Forest represents a model for an entirely new definition of “economy,” whereby our American systems of exchange, both of wealth and energy, are brought in 130508ReeceBookCover001line with the most important and inescapable economy of nature.”

“What we as 21st century Americans must finally come to understand is that the economy of consumption operates in direct opposition to, and at the peril of, the economy of nature. … Kentucky should look to Robinson Forest as a model for a sustainable, post-coal economy. We must replace the industrial logic of the strip mine with the much more ancient wisdom of the forest.”

“To abandon wilderness places like Robinson Forest would be to abandon ourselves. To ignore the natural laws of its watersheds for the logic of our own industrial imagination would be to abandon our better selves — to abandon a sustainable future for the sake of short-term avarice and indulgence. But to preserve the world will mean learning the lessons of Robinson Forest, and in doing so learning to preserve that embattled wilderness.”

 


Capitol Education Center shows progress can penetrate coal politics

February 17, 2013

A group of Louisville high school students in Frankfort to attend the I Love Mountains Day events toured the Capitol Education Center roof, which has solar panels, a wind turbine and a roof garden. Below, an interactive exhibit inside shows how much less power LED and compact florescent lights use than traditional incandescent bulbs. Photos by Tom Eblen

 

FRANKFORT — Each year, I notice more young people attending I Love Mountains Day. The rally against mountaintop-removal coal mining is organized by the citizens group Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, and it has been a Valentine’s tradition since 2006.

The young people join hundreds of their elders from across Kentucky in marching to the Capitol steps to hear speakers that have included writer Wendell Berry and actress Ashley Judd. This year’s main speaker was writer Silas House.

Before the speeches, many marchers visit legislators and urge them to curb the coal industry’s worst environmental abuses, to no avail.

But this year, there was something new for the young people to see: the Capitol Education Center, which had its grand opening Feb. 8. The center was the brainchild of First Lady Jane Beshear, and it is located in a formerly vacant building beside the Capitol that once housed heating and cooling equipment.

Beshear thought the 60,000 students and teachers who visit the Capitol each year needed a place to rest and eat their lunch. Then, the former teacher realized that this recycled building could play a role in teaching students about one of the most important issues facing Kentucky’s future: environmental sustainability.

The building got a “green” renovation that included recycled materials and energy-efficient technology. Solar panels and a wind turbine that feed into the utility grid were installed on the roof. Rain water is recycled to water a roof garden that will provide food for the Governor’s mansion kitchen.

The Kentucky Environmental Education Council coordinated a dozen universities and state agencies in developing interactive multimedia exhibits for the building. They teach students about Kentucky history, civics and geography — but mainly about energy efficiency and alternative energy sources.

The project was funded with $1.1 million from the Finance Cabinet and a $250,000 donation from Duke Energy. General Electric donated appliances for a commercial kitchen that Beshear hopes to use for demonstrations of healthy cooking and eating. (For more information, go to: Cec.ky.gov.)

In an interview, Beshear said these issues are “so important for the future. The more we as a state get into energy efficiency and alternative sources, the better off we’ll be.”

This education center is outstanding, and the First Lady’s vision for it is inspired. But it was hard to ignore the irony when I took a tour on I Love Mountains Day.

That event was created eight years ago to push for the so-called “stream saver” bill, which would ban coal companies from burying streams with mining debris. KFTC says the practice has obliterated more than 2,000 miles of Appalachian waterways.

But thanks to the coal industry’s enormous clout in Frankfort, the proposed legislation has gone nowhere. Most elected state officials proudly call themselves “friends of coal”. That friendship, which comes with lots of campaign cash, has always meant that public health, mine safety and environmental stewardship take a back seat to coal company profits.

Kentucky’s coal industry is in decline because of depleted reserves, cheap natural gas and the Environmental Protection Agency’s newfound willingness to do its job. But, like the National Rifle Association, the coal industry has always fought every attempt at common-sense regulation. Anyone who threatens the industry’s freedom to mine with impunity is branded as an enemy of coal.

There was an added emphasis for this year’s I Love Mountains Day: House Bill 170, which would require utilities to use increasing amounts of renewable energy and put more emphasis on energy-efficiency programs.

In short, this bill, sponsored by Democrats Kelly Flood of Lexington and Mary Lou Marzian of Louisville, would put into law some of the good ideas showcased at the new Capitol Education Center.

Change is hard, and progress can be slow. But I can’t help but be encouraged when I attend I Love Mountains Day or see something like the Capitol Education Center. Politicians will always be captive to power and money, I suppose, but it is good to see other Kentuckians working for a better future.

Few legislators have the courage to attend I Love Mountains Day, and the coal industry would go after any governor who dared show his face there.

But it is perhaps worth pointing out what Gov. Steve Beshear was doing shortly before the crowd arrived for I Love Mountains Day. He was in the Capitol rotunda with former Wildcat basketball star Derek Anderson, calling for legislation to create a statewide public smoking ban.

If you had told me 20 years ago that a Kentucky governor would do such a thing, I would have said you were crazy.

 


Photos from today’s ‘I Love Mountains’ rally in Frankfort

February 14, 2013

I went to the annual “I Love Mountains” march and rally at the State Capitol today to gather material for my Sunday column — and to take photos. Here are a few of them:

 

Kentucky author Silas House, center, led the annual “I Love Mountains Day” march down Capitol Avenue to the State Capitol. The event was sponsored by Kentuckians for the Commonwealth in opposition to mountaintop-removal and other destructive forms of coal mining. Several hundred people attended. Many marchers this year were advocating for two pieces of proposed legislation: one would limit coal mine waste dumped into streams; the other would require more use of renewable energy by utilities in Kentucky.

Many children brought homemade signs. 

Eric Sutherland of Lexington, center, was among those cheering the rally’s speakers.

Writer Silas House, on the steps of the State Capitol, urged citizens to “clean this house” of politicians who do the bidding of the coal industry at the expense of Appalachia’s people and communities. 

Kentucky author Wendell Berry, right, shares a laugh with disabled coal miner Carl Shoupe of Harlan County, who spoke at the rally.

Ella Corder, a student at Meece Middle School in Somerset, waited for applause to die down so she could read the essay that won her a contest sponsored by Kentuckians for the Commonwealth.

Kentucky writers Bobbie Ann Mason, left, and Ed McClanahan were among hundreds who participated.

Daniel Mullins, 10, of Berea, makes his feelings known.

A Valentine’s Day reminder 

 


As you reflect on civil rights history, imagine the future

January 19, 2013

When I was a child, many white Americans, and most of them in the South, considered Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights activists to be radicals and trouble-makers. Some even called them “communists.”

Almost everyone now considers them heroes. Ideas about racial equality and justice that were then controversial are now common sense.

Segregationist leaders such as George Wallace, Lester Maddox and Orval Faubus are now remembered with contempt, when they are remembered at all. We pity the average people who enabled the bigots, either with their actions or their silence.

On Monday, we mark the 27th annual holiday honoring King, as well as the second inauguration of the nation’s first president of African descent. Looking back, it is amazing how much changed in so short a time. Racism still exists, to be sure, but it is no longer acceptable in mainstream society.

It makes me wonder: What controversial ideas today will seem like common sense in just a few years?

The first that comes to mind is gay rights. It is today’s most controversial civil rights issue, yet the nation has clearly turned the corner. You can tell it the same way you could tell by the early 1960s that we had turned the corner of black civil rights. The groundswell of support wasn’t just coming from the victims of discrimination, but from others who realized it was wrong and found the courage to say so.

If there has been a consistent theme of social progress during my lifetime, it is this: discrimination against any group of people because of who they are is un-American.

We saw an example of that last week when the small Perry County town of Vicco became the fourth municipality in Kentucky to ban discrimination against gays, joining Lexington, Louisville and Covington. Vicco officials said they weren’t endorsing homosexuality; they just thought discrimination was wrong.

Most opposition to gay rights comes from religious conservatives. During King’s lifetime, many white Christians found Biblical justification for segregation and discrimination, just as their great-grandfathers had for slavery. Everyone is entitled to their religious beliefs. What is problematic is when they try to impose them on others.

Wendell Berry, the renowned Kentucky writer and lifelong Baptist, made that point and many others to Baptist ministers meeting at Georgetown College on Jan. 11. Coverage of his talk has attracted a lot of attention. (Read more about what he had to say on my blog.)

When I think of other controversial issues that will seem like no-brainers in a few years, the reasons for our clouded judgment have more to do with economics than religion.

Kentuckians’ disregard for the environment reminds me of our willful ignorance about the health and social costs of tobacco just two or three decades ago. Only after the price-support system that made tobacco an economic mainstay of family farms was abolished did we stop trying to deny the obvious and defend the indefensible.

More than 30 local governments in Kentucky now have public smoking bans, and some legislators are pushing for a statewide version to curb soaring health-care costs. Restricting smoking in most public places is now common sense, yet it would have been unthinkable in Kentucky a generation ago.

Sit back for a moment and try to imagine conventional wisdom a few years from now. For one thing, I think, discrimination based on sexual orientation will be as unacceptable then as discrimination based on race, gender or national origin is now.

I also can imagine hearing comments like these:

Why did people back then allow the beauty and future economic viability of Eastern Kentucky’s mountains to be destroyed just so coal companies could extract the last measure of profit in return for a declining number of short-term jobs?

How could people back then have denied the scientific consensus about climate change and refused to act when the signs — melting glaciers, the increasing frequency of killer storms and droughts, year after year of record-high temperatures — were so obvious?

What were they thinking?

As we honor civil rights heroes Monday, and pity the bigots and their enablers, let us also give some thought to the future. Who will people honor then, and who will they pity?

And ask yourself: which side of history will I be on?


Blaming coal’s problems on regulators is a strategy for losers

August 12, 2012

We curse the cop when we see lights flashing in our rear-view mirror.

Kentuckians are an independent people. We have good reasons to speed! Besides, speed limits restrict our “freedom” and take away our “liberty.” They are downright un-American, forced upon us by politicians and government bureaucrats.

Of course, we know in our heart that the cop is just doing his duty for our own good. Without speed limits, crashes would claim a greater toll than the already obscene 32,000 deaths nationally each year, one-third of which are caused by speeding.

It is harder to visualize the tens of thousands of people who die prematurely or are sickened by air and water pollution caused by irresponsible coal mining and burning. This is a largely hidden toll, with no graphic video for television newscasts. But health researchers can prove and document it.

The National Resources Defense Council reported last week that Kentucky is the worst state in the nation for toxic air pollution from coal-fired power plants. It blamed that fact on state officials doing too little to force utilities to clean up.

The coal industry acts as if it is above the law. Kentucky government too often behaves as if it is owned and operated by coal interests.

Politicians love to rant about the Obama administration’s “war on coal.”

What they mean is that the Environmental Protection Agency, the Office of Surface Mining and other federal agencies are, for the first time in years, being better cops. They are enforcing environmental-protection laws, and they are trying to make state regulators enforce them, too.

Consider this recent example, at a joint meeting of the General Assembly’s Natural Resources and the Environment committee on Aug. 2.

The issue at hand was OSM’s demand that Kentucky follow the 1977 federal surface-mining law and require mining companies to post adequate reclamation bonds. If a company cleans up mined land as required by law, its bond is refunded. If it goes broke before the work is done, the bond is supposed to pay for cleanup.

The federal government has for years urged Kentucky to require higher bonds because in many of the 15 to 25 bond forfeiture cases each year there is too little money to do the work.

The Herald-Leader’s John Cheves reported that in an average year, the state Division of Abandoned Mine Lands faces more than $4 million in unfunded reclamation costs because bonds are too small. Land is left scarred, and neighbors’ property values are diminished.

The Beshear administration says that requiring adequate bonds would be “impractical and unaffordable” for many coal companies. The state Energy and Environment Cabinet has proposed raising bond requirements and creating a pool financed by fees on coal operations to help pay costs when an individual company’s reclamation bond falls short.

That seems like a reasonable solution, but you can bet it won’t happen unless federal regulators keep up the pressure. Most of us would find it reasonable to require an industry to clean up after itself. But to coal-industry apologists, it’s war.

“There is an assault on Kentucky, and really our way of life,” Rep. Jim Gooch, D-Providence, complained at the Aug. 2 meeting.

“I don’t want to roll over dead and play stoolie in front of the federal government, either,” said Rep. Keith Hall, D-Phelps, “because I believe in states’ rights.”

Despite earning their livings from coal-related businesses, Gooch and Hall are the chairman and vice chairman, respectively, of the Natural Resources and the Environment committee. No conflicts of interest there.

Federal regulators are not waging a “war” on coal. They are enforcing laws designed to limit pollution, sickness and premature death, which study after study have attributed to irresponsible coal mining and burning.

In the short term, the coal industry will find plenty of allies in this phony “war on coal.” Kentucky miners are desperate for jobs, and other businesses like having electricity that has always been artificially cheap because the full cost of producing it hasn’t been taken into account.

Western coal, cheap natural gas, renewable energy technology and the reality of climate change cannot be ignored. If Kentucky’s coal industry wants a future, it must clean up its act and find ways to reduce the health and environmental damage of its product.

The coal industry faces inevitable change, the kind of seismic economic shift that Kentucky slaveholders and tobacco growers once faced. Continuing to blame the environmental cops whose lights are now in the rear-view mirror is a strategy for losers.

 


A coal supporter talks straight with the industry

June 28, 2012

Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-WVa. Photo by Manuel Balce Ceneta/Associated Press.

 

Americans heard something on the U.S. Senate floor last Wednesday that they haven’t heard for nearly three years: a coal-state senator and longtime supporter of the coal industry speak eloquent truth to power.

Sen. Jay Rockefeller’s 16-minute speech was remarkable for its wisdom and candor. It echoed a similar address in 2009 by another West Virginia Democrat and longtime coal-industry champion, the late Sen. Robert Byrd.

They both sounded like old friends trying to warn an alcoholic that his behavior had become unacceptably destructive, both to himself and to others.

The occasion for Rockefeller’s speech was a resolution before the Senate to disapprove of new Environmental Protection Agency rules reducing coal-fired power plants’ emissions of mercury and other toxic pollution.

The resolution was sponsored by Sen. James Inhofe, an Oklahoma Republican and climate-change denier, and endorsed by coal industry lapdogs including Sen. Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader from Kentucky.

“Coal has played an important part in our past and can play an important role in our future, but it will only happen if we face reality,” Rockefeller began. (To watch the video, go to Youtu.be/ErN9v3e7zro)

“The reality is that many who run the coal industry today would rather attack false enemies and deny real problems than find solutions,” he said. “Scare tactics are a cynical waste of time, money and, worst of all, coal miners’ hopes.”

Rockefeller then outlined some inconvenient truths that coal industry leaders gloss over when they attack environmental-protection laws and government regulation.

“First, our coal reserves are finite and many coal-fired power plants are aging,” he said. “The cheap, easy coal seams are diminishing, and production is falling — especially in the Central Appalachian Basin in Southern West Virginia. Production is shifting to lower-cost areas like the Illinois and Powder River Basins.

“Second, natural gas use is on the rise. Power companies are switching to natural gas because of lower prices, cheaper construction costs, lower emissions and vast, steady supplies,” he said.

“Third, the shift to a lower-carbon economy is not going away, and it’s a disservice to coal miners and their families to pretend that it is,” Rockefeller said. “Coal company operators deny that we need to do anything to address climate change despite the established scientific consensus and mounting national desire for a cleaner, healthier environment.”

Rockefeller, who was West Virginia’s governor from 1977 to 1985 and has been a senator ever since, said that in 2010, he proposed a two-year suspension of EPA carbon rules to try to help the coal industry adapt. Instead, the industry has fought all attempts at compromise. “This foolish action wastes time and money that could have been invested in the future of coal,” he said.

Rockefeller said the EPA’s actions are in the best interest of his state’s citizens.

“The annual health benefits of the rule are enormous,” he said. “EPA has relied on thousands of studies that established the serious and long-term impact of these pollutants on premature deaths, heart attacks, hospitalizations, pregnant women, babies and children.”

If coal is to have a future, it must solve its environmental challenges rather than keep trying to avoid them, Rockefeller said.

“It’s not too late for the coal industry to step up and lead by embracing the realities of today and creating a sustainable future,” he said. “Discard the scare tactics. Stop denying science. Listen to what markets are saying about greenhouse gases and other environmental concerns, to what West Virginians are saying about their water and air, their health, and the cost of caring for seniors and children who are most susceptible to pollution.

“And unless this industry aggressively leans into the future, coal miners will lose the most,” he said. “We have the chance here to not just grudgingly accept the future, but to boldly embrace it.”

I’m sure Rockefeller’s speech angered the coal barons, just as Byrd’s speech did in December 2009. Coal industry leaders don’t seem interested in listening to reason, even from politicians who have supported them for decades. They’re probably already raising money to try to defeat Rockefeller in his next election. After all, there’s no shortage of politicians willing to take the coal industry’s money and do its bidding, in Kentucky and in West Virginia.

If Rockefeller’s words have any impact, it is likely to be with the coal industry’s declining work force, and with coal-state citizens who are getting fed up with poisonous air, polluted water and higher incidences of sickness and disease. Coal will never have a bright future as long as its leaders cling to a dirty past.

Watch Rockefeller’s speech here:


What else Nikky Finney had to say about mountains

February 12, 2012

One of the challenges of newspaper writing is deciding what to cut. With any good topic, there is always more interesting information than newsprint space. My Sunday column about Kentucky’s fine writers mentioned many of them, past and present. But within minutes of it being posted online, readers were pointing out other good writers I left out.

What I really hated to leave out of the piece — but did, both for space and because it was a slight diversion from topic — was everything poet Nikky Finney had to say about the influence of the mountains on Kentucky and Kentucky writers.  Here are Finney’s full comments, which were sent as an email following up on our conversation the evening before:

 When speaking of the greatness of Kentucky writing I often hear people say, “must be something in the water!” I don’t think so. I think it’s in great part due to the mountains that rise and stretch out all around our homes and farms. Our greatness as writers has to do with the land. Our connection to it. A wonderful old man in South Carolina once told me this wonderful thing, “God ain’t making no more land.” He was right. He was trying to tell me to remember what was important in this life. We don’t really own the land. The land owns us. Mountains that have been with us here in Kentucky for a million years. We never credit the mountains enough for helping shape who we are, for giving us a specific lens through which to see the world, a lens to nurture what we have to say about our human presence in it. We never credit the mountains enough. We think that they are tough and resilient and can take care of themselves but more and more we know that is not true. We have to be better caretakers of this landscape that is so particular to our sensibilities. We act as if the mountains will always be there — surrounding, protecting, helping to situate our contemplative nature, and yet we know it just takes a little dynamite and greed to change all that. The history of Kentucky writing has been what it has been because the mountains that inhabit so much our our particular skyline have long been our favorite horizon; that wondrous place where our eyes land and lift.

If you agree with Finney about the importance of protecting Kentucky’s mountains from destructive surface-mining, you might want to be in Frankfort on Tuesday for the annual I Love Mountains Day march and rally. Click here for more information.

 

 


UPike plan should lead to discussion about raising coal severance tax to improve Kentucky education

January 15, 2012

The political wild card in this year’s General Assembly is a high-powered proposal to make private University of Pikeville a state-supported school.

The idea is being pushed by House Speaker Greg Stumbo and former Gov. Paul Patton, who is now the University of Pikeville’s president. The idea has solid support from southeast Kentucky legislators and community leaders. Gov. Steve Beshear has ordered a thorough study.

Like many ideas that sound good but get complicated as you dig into them, this proposal needs thorough study. But it also provides an excellent opportunity for broader public discussion about how more educational attainment could improve life in Kentucky and how we should go about paying for it.

Having the state assume ownership of a private school is a very Kentucky thing to do. That is how five of the state’s eight public universities came to be: Western and Eastern in 1906, Murray and Morehead in 1922 and the University of Louisville in 1970.

“This sounds like the same thing: We’ve got a campus here and all we have to do is make it a state school,” said Bill Ellis, a history professor at Eastern Kentucky University and author of the new book, A History of Education in Kentucky. “It all comes down to politics and who has the votes.”

Creation of those state universities was generally a good thing for Kentucky, Ellis said. It made education more accessible and brought economic development and culture to communities across the state.

Many people in southeast Kentucky argue that their region — with some of the state’s highest rates of poverty and lowest levels of educational attainment — has been shortchanged.

Southeast Kentucky is part of the service areas of Eastern and Morehead state universities, but both campuses are a long way from many of the region’s towns and hollows. Pikeville and surrounding areas would no doubt benefit economically and culturally by having a state university.

But for years now, the General Assembly has cut state support for higher education. Given that, can Kentucky taxpayers afford another university mouth to feed? Stumbo and Patton say that is not a problem: Rather than using general fund money, state support can come from Eastern Kentucky’s coal severance tax revenues.

At this point, let’s step back and look at the big picture. What do legislators really need to do to help Appalachian Kentucky catch up with the rest of the state — and Kentucky catch up with the rest of the nation?

Let’s begin with the notion that more state support for education is essential. That is because nothing has more power to improve Kentucky’s economy and society than educational attainment.

Regardless of whether Pikeville becomes a state university, lawmakers should find ways to reverse the budget-cutting trends that have contributed to skyrocketing tuition at Kentucky’s state universities and made them less affordable.

The stated goal of the University of Pikeville proposal is to make higher education more affordable and attainable for mountain students. But are there more cost-effective ways to do that?

Rather than taking on another campus, would Kentucky get more bang for the buck by using coal severance tax money to finance scholarships for mountain students at Kentucky’s existing public and private universities, including Pikeville?

Perhaps those scholarships could be supplemented with loans from severance tax money that would be forgiven if students lived and worked in the mountains for a few years after graduation. That could curb the region’s historic “brain drain.”

But let’s not stop there. The Pikeville proposal creates a perfect opportunity for a broader discussion about the severance tax that Kentucky has levied on the coal industry since the 1970s, and how that money should be used.

The severance tax rate of 4.5 percent, which hasn’t changed in decades, is among the lowest of major coal-producing states. It generates more than $200 million a year. But over the years, much of that money has been wasted on building vacant industrial parks and other political pet projects, plowed back into subsidies for the coal industry or gone to benefit parts of Kentucky nowhere near the coalfields.

If the severance tax’s goal is to improve life and create a new economy in the coalfields for when all of the coal is gone, there could be no better use for that money than improving educational attainment.

So regardless of whether the University of Pikeville receives state support, the General Assembly should take this opportunity to raise the coal severance tax to national norms and focus the money on education. That’s right: Turn this political wild card into a trump card for Kentucky’s future.


Nebraska echoes coal lodge flap; results different

October 26, 2011

Does this sound familiar?

An energy industry is controversial because of its environmental impact. So a company tries to buy public goodwill by donating money to the state university’s most popular athletic program.

I’m not talking about the Wildcat Coal Lodge, the new on-campus luxury dormitory for the University of Kentucky’s basketball team. The lodge’s name — plus a shrine to the coal industry that will be in its front lobby — were requirements of an $8 million donation from coal industry executives.

The university’s 2009 decision to accept the donation with those strings attached created controversy. That is because surface coal mining has caused extensive damage to Appalachian Kentucky’s land, air and water.

I’m also not talking about the $85,000 the industry group Friends of Coal is spending to sponsor three athletic events, including the UK-University of Louisville football game and Big Blue Madness.

No, the scenario I am referring to played out recently in Nebraska. That is where TransCanada is trying to build a pipeline across that state and several others to carry oil from Canada to refineries on the Gulf Coast.

The pipeline is controversial in Nebraska because the company insists on building it through the porous soil of the state’s Sandhills region and the Ogallala Aquifer, which provides water to large areas of Nebraska and parts of seven other Western states. A pipeline leak in those areas could create an environmental disaster.

TransCanada has refused to change the pipeline route. On Monday, Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman called a special legislative session for Nov. 1 to address the issue.

University of Nebraska football is a religious experience in that state, similar to UK basketball in Kentucky. But the Lincoln Journal-Star reported that cheering turned to boos when a highlights video of the Cornhuskers’ 1978 conference championship team began showing on Memorial Stadium’s huge HuskerVision screen during the Sept. 10 game against Fresno State.

The video was titled “Husker Pipeline” and seemed to be as much an advertisement for TransCanada as a tribute to the team. Four days later, after fans complained, the university ended TransCanada’s football sponsorship.

“I want to make it clear that the athletic department has no position, either pro or con, regarding the proposed TransCanada Pipeline,” Athletic Director Tom Osborne, a former Republican congressman and Nebraska head football coach, said in a statement.

The university explained that IMG College — the same marketing firm that works with UK Athletics — had signed the deal before the pipeline controversy erupted.

“Our athletic events are intended to entertain and unify our fan base by providing an experience that is not divisive,” Osborne said in his statement.

It is unclear what the TransCanada football sponsorship was worth to the university. Pipeline opponents estimate the company has spent several hundred thousand dollars on pro-pipeline advertising in Nebraska.

The Nebraska and Kentucky situations make for interesting comparisons.

In both states, the essential debate is about whether creating short-term jobs is worth the potential for long-term environmental damage. But the situations get more complicated from there.

TransCanada has had a presence in Nebraska for only about three decades. King Coal has ruled Kentucky politics for more than a century. Few Kentucky elected officials are brave enough to buck the cash-rich coal industry.

In Nebraska, the pipeline would be an environmental threat only if it leaks. (Building it would have some environmental impact, but, in the long run, that impact would be less than trucking millions of barrels of oil cross-country.)

In Kentucky, though, coal’s environmental damage has been real and apparent for decades, especially as surface mines have gotten bigger and more destructive. The beautifully reclaimed meadows and real estate developments the coal industry likes to brag about represent only a tiny fraction of mined land. Mine-related air pollution and water pollution have been significant.

You could argue that it was easy for the University of Nebraska to take a principled stand. The thousands of dollars it stood to gain from the TransCanada sponsorship paled in comparison to the millions the coal industry gave UK for its tribute lodge.

But that brings us to a question: Is the issue one of principle, or merely price?


Focus on Kentucky coal’s future, not this futile ‘war’

July 10, 2011

Kentuckians love to embrace a lost cause, especially one that deserves to be lost.

The state stayed in the Union during the Civil War, yet many Kentuckians switched sides and mythologized the Confederacy after the war was over. Long after everyone else recognized smoking’s deadly toll, Kentucky leaders remained apologists for tobacco.

Now, federal regulators are finally acting to curb the damage mining and burning coal does to human health and the environment. So where are Kentucky’s leaders? Many have stormed the ramparts, vowing to fight what they call the “war on coal.”

The hollering grew louder Thursday when the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced new standards that will require utilities in 27 Eastern states to reduce power-plant emissions. The EPA says the stricter limits will prevent tens of thousands of premature deaths, heart attacks and cases of bronchitis and asthma, creating up to $280 billion in annual benefits by 2014 — well beyond the cost of compliance.

These science-based standards have been in the works for years, and big business has been fighting them every step of the way. But pollution is becoming harder to ignore as health-care costs rise and the damage is more obvious and measurable.

Kentucky is the third-largest coal- producing state, and federal regulators have gotten more aggressive about reining in destructive mining practices.

Federal regulators eventually will limit carbon dioxide emissions from burning coal, a major contributor to disastrous climate change. Yet, many Kentuckians continue to deny climate science.

Burning coal generates more than 90 percent of electricity in Kentucky and 46 percent nationally. Many business and political leaders complain that the economy can’t bear the cost of cleaning up after coal, which will include higher power rates. As if sickness, death and pollution don’t have huge costs, too.

But here’s the thing: We will be burning coal for decades, because we must. No other energy source can replace coal any time soon. Environmentalists who demonize coal are ignoring reality just as much as the business people and politicians who demonize regulators and fight to protect pollution.

“I wish we could get away from this ‘war on coal’; it doesn’t help anybody,” said John Morgan, a mining engineer and president of Morgan Worldwide Consultants Inc. “We should be having debates about facts and not hyperbole, and quit demonizing everybody.”

Morgan’s Lexington-based firm has found a niche helping the mining industry and regulators figure out more environmentally friendly ways to mine. “If you’re going to mine coal, you need to do it both economically and with less impact, and realize that mining is a temporary land use,” he said. “It’s not just the industry that needs to think more creatively, but the regulators.”

That means designing mines that produce more coal while disturbing less land and fewer streams. And it means more planning for uses of reclaimed mine land.

Morgan points out that tighter regulation hasn’t hurt coal production. And after nearly three decades of decline, the number of Kentucky jobs in underground and surface mining has been rising since 2004. “People say the war on coal is hurting employment, but the numbers tell a different story,” he said.

One reason more jobs are being created is that mine productivity has been falling since a peak in 2000. Easy-to-mine Kentucky coal is becoming more scarce, so the trend of bigger machines and fewer miners is reversing. “As productivity goes down, it’s going to mean more people,” Morgan said.

“Long-term, there’s going to be more underground mining because easily minable surface reserves are almost gone,” he said.

Kentucky mines will get smaller. Permits will need to be more sophisticated. And all of that means there will be more demand for well-trained mining professionals, even as some work is automated. “The biggest long-term challenge is the human resource side,” Morgan said.

The lost cause that so many Kentuckians have embraced is not coal but the idea we can continue mining and burning it in the same old ways. Rather than fighting a doomed “war” to preserve the past, our leaders should focus on the future and the role Kentucky coal must play.


‘War on coal’ avoids the real challenge, responsibility

June 12, 2011

Did you hear we are at war? I don’t mean the never-ending wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the covert wars in Libya and Yemen or even the nebulous wars against terrorism and drugs.

I mean the “War on Coal.” All of Kentucky’s politicians are talking about it — at least all of those who want campaign contributions and support from the coal industry.

“They have declared war, war on Kentucky’s coal industry,” U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell said of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in a speech to the Kentucky Coal Association earlier this month. The U.S. Senate’s Republican leader claimed the EPA wants to see the “coal industry driven out of business altogether.”

The next day, state Rep. Jim Gooch, a Providence Democrat who heads the state House Natural Resources Committee, went even further as he complained about the EPA’s efforts to make coal-fired power plants reduce their air and water pollution.

“This is a war on Kentucky,” Gooch exclaimed during a hearing, “because what we’re talking about is totally destroying our economy.”

And don’t forget Gov. Steve Beshear’s tantrum against the EPA during his State of the Commonwealth address in February. “Get off our backs!” Beshear bellowed. “Get off our backs!”

So what is this War on Coal? A lot of baloney, that’s what. It is a public relations campaign by an industry with a long history of maximizing profits by disregarding environmental stewardship and mine safety.

The coal industry is apoplectic because federal regulators are doing their jobs more aggressively now than they did during the Bush administration. The EPA is enforcing the Clean Air Act by requiring industries to reduce carbon dioxide and other greenhouse-gas emissions that cause climate change. The agency also is trying to curb destructive surface-mining practices and reduce water pollution.

Some politicians and business executives have responded by claiming that climate change is a myth, despite overwhelming scientific consensus to the contrary. Others just fear costs. But the costs of pollution have always existed; we just haven’t paid enough of them with our power bills and corporate bottom lines. We pay for them with sickness, premature death and degradation of our fragile planet.

I was encouraged to see that the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce has invited journalist James Fallows to be a keynote speaker at its annual meeting July 12 in Louisville. He will talk about his December cover story in The Atlantic magazine, Why the Future of Clean Energy is Dirty Coal.

Fallows’ article — click here to read it online at TheAtlantic.com — is excellent. For one thing, it punctures illusions on both the political right and left. Yes, climate change is real and carbon emissions must be dramatically reduced to avert disaster. No, renewable energy cannot replace coal — at least not in our lifetimes.

Because coal will be essential to civilization for generations, the sensible thing is to figure out how to mine and burn it more cleanly, Fallows wrote. Most of that responsibility must fall to the United States and China, which together produce more than 40 percent of man-made greenhouse gasses and bring different strengths to the fight to reduce them.

Fallows profiled U.S. and Chinese scientists who are working on innovative solutions. The most intriguing experiment may be “underground coal gasification.” Jets of oxygen, mixed with steam or chemicals, are blasted into coal seams deep underground. That creates a chemical reaction, producing a gas that can be piped out and burned to create electricity. The process avoids the need for traditional mining and leaves most of coal’s nasty by-products underground.

Kentucky politicians and business leaders could learn a lot from Fallows’ thinking, which transcends ideology to see the coal issue for what it really is — a technology problem to be solved.

Rather than fighting a “war” to protect pollution, Kentucky’s leaders should look past political clichés and entrenched economic interests.

They should position Kentucky to be a leader in meeting the technical and economic challenge of making “clean coal” a reality instead of an oxymoron. It won’t be cheap, easy or painless for anyone, but it is the smart thing to do.


Digging for coal? No, for Wildcat Coal Lodge

March 30, 2011

Construction crews worked Tuesday to dig out rock and dirt for the foundation of Wildcat Coal Lodge, the new $7 million home for the University of Kentucky’s basketball players. Photo by Tom Eblen


News events show energy status quo must change

March 20, 2011

If we can learn anything from recent headlines, it is that powering our economy and lifestyle will only get more difficult and expensive, at least in the near future.

Japan is struggling to avert catastrophe from an earthquake-damaged nuclear power plant. The crisis has the rest of the world taking a second look at the safety of its nuclear systems.

Kentucky outlawed nuclear power in 1984 until the federal government came up with a plan for storing spent fuel, which it has yet to do. The ban was prompted by a leaking radioactive dump in Fleming County that took years to contain. The state Senate voted last month to repeal the ban, but the bill died in the House.

Should Kentucky reconsider nuclear power, which now provides 20 percent of this nation’s electricity? Maybe so. We’re in no position to ignore any source of energy. But Japan’s disaster reminds us nuclear power is an imperfect, unforgiving technology that can be dangerous and costly.

I spent the early years of my career covering another example, much closer to home.

The Tennessee Valley Authority, which provides electricity to parts of Kentucky and six other states, narrowly averted a nuclear accident in 1975 when one of its reactors in Alabama caught fire.

By the time I started covering TVA in 1981, the utility was raising electricity rates and writing off billions of dollars in investment because officials realized the agency was building too many nuclear reactors.

Then, in 1985, TVA shut down all its reactors after its own nuclear engineers secretly came to me and other reporters with evidence that raised questions about whether those plants had been built safely. That led to years of repairs and billions in additional cost.

Coal provides half the nation’s power and more than 90 percent of Kentucky’s power. Electricity has been cheap in this state, because many of the health and environmental costs of mining and burning coal have been ignored. That is changing, because it must.

The Environmental Protection Agency last week proposed tighter rules for how much mercury, other toxic substances and particle pollution coal-fired power plants can release into the air. The EPA claims the rules will save 17,000 lives a year, and the $10 billion cost of making plants cleaner would produce $100 billion worth of health and environmental benefits.

Utilities will fight the new rules, just as they fought many previous rules that made coal-fired plants much cleaner and safer. Expect opposition, too, from many politicians, especially those in the pockets of industries that fund their campaigns.

They will say we “can’t afford” to protect public health or the environment, and higher standards will “kill jobs.” Change is inevitable, though, because research shows that pollution and climate change are killing a lot more than jobs.

Many of those same politicians have fought against fuel-economy standards for vehicles, leaving us all the more vulnerable to political instability in the Middle East and rising demand for oil in developing nations such as China and India.

Increasing domestic oil production in ways that harm the environment isn’t the answer, because that would barely make a dent in the price or supply of what is now a globally traded commodity.

So what is the answer? There isn’t one, but many.

We must invest in research and technology to mine, drill and burn coal and oil more cleanly and efficiently. We must incorporate whatever lessons are learned from Japan’s crisis to make nuclear power safer.

We must develop renewable energy sources — solar, wind and biomass — that will be able to sustain civilization long after coal and oil are gone. Government must play a significant role in this research where private industry cannot or will not.

Perhaps more than anything, we must get serious about designing buildings, vehicles and gadgets to use less energy. Conservation isn’t as difficult as many people think. Take, for example, Kentucky’s many new energy-efficient school buildings, including one in Warren County that will generate as much power as it uses.

We have a choice: ignore the headlines and fight inevitable change, or learn from them and get serious about balancing our needs and desires with those of future generations. Anyone who thinks we can maintain our energy status quo is a dim bulb.


Coal’s ‘sanctuary’ state? Kentucky always has been

February 26, 2011

Kentucky’s legislators have shown unusual willingness this year to waste their time and taxpayers’ money.

Keep teenagers in school? Protect the elderly in nursing homes? Create a more fair and adequate tax system? Can’t get it done. But lawmakers have plenty of time to push legislation that belabors the obvious.

Republicans want schools to set aside time for children to say the pledge of allegiance, which, by law, they already do. Democrats want a constitutional amendment to protect the right to hunt and fish, which has never been threatened.

Most telling of all, two lawmakers want to proclaim the right of Kentucky’s coal industry to do as it pleases. Kentuckians know the coal industry has always done that, with plenty of help from our politicians.

Rep. Jim Gooch, a Providence Democrat and climate-change denier, proposed legislation that would exempt coal mining from the Clean Water Act and other federal environmental regulations if the coal never leaves Kentucky.

Even more ridiculous is a Senate joint resolution calling for Kentucky to be a “sanctuary state” for the coal industry, freeing it from regulation by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. That proposal was made by Sen. Brandon Smith, a Hazard Republican who once managed a company the EPA went after for spilling 7,000 gallons of oil into a Laurel County creek.

Gooch and Smith say the coal industry should only be regulated by the state. But what they really want is no effective regulation at all. Too often, they amount to the same thing.

Consider this example from last week’s headlines: State regulators must submit a plan to the U.S. Office of Surface Mining by April 1 to raise the cash bonds coal companies must post to ensure that land is reclaimed after mining. In dozens of cases since 2007, companies shut down and left a mess that their bonds didn’t begin to cover. This time, as previously, state regulators are raising bonds only because federal regulators are forcing them to.

The coal industry is freaking out about federal regulation more than usual. That is because, for the first time since the Clinton and Carter administrations, the federal agencies charged with protecting the environment and regulating mine health and safety are being allowed and encouraged to do their jobs.

The proposed state legislation is especially embarrassing because Gooch and Smith are chairmen of the House and Senate committees that oversee Kentucky’s natural resources. But Steve Beshear, a usually sensible governor, managed to outdo them both in pandering to the coal industry. In his State of the Commonwealth address, Beshear colorfully called for less federal regulation of coal. “Get off our backs!” he shouted. “Get off our backs!”

I’m sure the coal barons loved Beshear’s performance. It reminded me of a previous generation of Southern governors, railing against the feds for insisting that their states acknowledge black citizens’ civil rights. It was Beshear’s George Wallace moment.

The truth is, we must mine and burn coal for years to come until sustainable energy technology is ready to replace it. But coal must be used responsibly, because we also need clean air, clean water and land that is capable of supporting life and an economy long after the coal is gone.

Not all coal companies are bad actors. But the industry as a whole has always cared more about big profits than protecting miners’ health or respecting the environment. Reform has never come without federal regulation, and the industry has usually fought it every step of the way.

Thankfully, the legislation proposed by Gooch and Smith won’t amount to much, except a waste of public time and money. States cannot just ignore federal law — that issue was settled pretty clearly by the Civil War.

The lawmakers say they want to “send a message” to Washington. They’re sending a message, all right. The message is that King Coal has the best Kentucky politicians money can buy, and the rest of us need the feds to protect us from them.


While praising coal, UK must tell the whole story

February 12, 2011

Rendering of what the proposed Wildcat Coal Lodge may look like.

Not only will the University of Kentucky’s proposed Wildcat Coal Lodge honor the mining industry, it apparently must praise it.

UK has agreed to create an exhibit in the new basketball dormitory’s main lobby to serve as “discussion of and tribute to the importance of the coal industry to the Commonwealth of Kentucky.”

Who must approve the tribute’s content? Joseph W. Craft III, the head of Alliance Coal Co., who organized the donors who gave UK at least $7 million to build the lodge. Craft also was a major donor to the Joe Craft Center, which houses UK’s basketball practice facility and athletics offices.

The Wildcat Coal Lodge has stirred controversy ever since UK’s Board of Trustees agreed in 2009 to accept the donations and the strings attached to them. (The name itself is ironic: in addition to being UK’s mascot, “wildcat” is an old nickname for irresponsible mining.)

Critics have accused UK of selling out to the coal industry to create an even more lavish athletics program, which often seems to overshadow the university’s academic mission. The writer Wendell Berry, a retired UK English professor and critic of mountaintop-removal coal mining, withdrew his academic papers in protest.

But the public learned this latest wrinkle in the deal only last week, after Herald-Leader reporter Linda Blackford used the state Open Records Act to obtain a copy of the agreement between UK and the Craft group.

It made me wonder: assuming this tribute provides less than a complete picture of Kentucky’s coal industry, how does UK plan to tell the rest of the story? Should a second exhibit be planned elsewhere on campus to provide balance?

Perhaps UK could memorialize Kentuckians who have died in mining accidents by putting each of their names on a seat in Rupp Arena. Or it could dedicate a wing of the new UK Hospital to miners who have suffered and died from black lung disease.

Water in one of UK’s fountains could be made to run orange occasionally, to remind people of what surface mining sometimes does to Eastern Kentucky’s streams.

E-mail me any suggestions you have, although I’ll say up front that I don’t think it would be a good idea to strip-mine The Arboretum.

Seriously, UK’s apparent willingness to cuddle up to the coal industry in return for money — as it did years ago with the tobacco industry — raises questions of intellectual honesty and independence, which is something a university should care about.

Kentucky has an old and complex relationship with coal and the industry that mines it. It is a story complicated by tradeoffs.

Coal really does “keep the lights on,” as the industry says. Mining provides many good-paying jobs in poor mountain counties, although the number has been declining for years. Because we have never accounted for coal’s true costs, cheap electricity rates have enabled Kentucky to develop important manufacturing industries.

But coal mining also has damaged Kentucky’s land, water and people — often irreparably so. The industry has created some multi-millionaires, but it also has contributed to some of the nation’s worst pockets of poverty.

Can UK tell a balanced story of coal? It can, and it has. One of the best summaries of this complex story is a documentary film, Coal in Kentucky, produced last year by UK’s College of Engineering and the Center for Visualization and Virtual Environments. If you haven’t seen it, you should, no matter which side you are on.

Somehow, though, I don’t think this is the kind of “tribute” the coal industry has in mind.

Pork futures

It is ironic, and in an odd way reassuring, that the Kentucky Republican known as the “Prince of Pork” has become chairman of the House Appropriations Committee at this moment in time.

U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers

The GOP’s Tea Party wing in Congress seems to want to all but eliminate taxes, spending and government regulation to create some kind of Ayn Rand fantasy land of right-wing economic theory. Their pledge to immediately slash $100 billion in federal spending, if enacted, would wreck the country.

Rogers’ new job is ironic because his skill over the years at securing earmarks for his southeast Kentucky district is just the sort of thing GOP hotheads are now vilifying — with some justification. Still, Rogers also knows how important much of the government’s spending actually is to public well-being.

Here’s hoping Rogers can give the Tea Partiers some much-needed adult supervision.