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.