The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

November 3, 2012

War on coal being fought from fronts other than White House

The Back Porch

By Nerissa Young
Columnist

— People should vote for whom they choose.

Both sides of the presidential campaign are notably fast and loose with the facts, but one characterization of President Obama is too simplistic to be 100 percent correct.

To call Obama’s support of the Environmental Protection Agency’s regulation of coal mining a “war on coal” is a bit of a stretch. Plenty of factors have led to a recent decrease in coal mining jobs in West Virginia. Not all of them are of the president’s making.

The single greatest threat to coal mining jobs in West Virginia is the abundance of West Virginia’s own natural gas fields. The technology that allows for hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, makes natural gas a better economic buy for consumers. That is a simple truth. People want cheap energy.

Another fact of coal mining is the mechanization that has decreased the need for able-bodied humans because machines can work faster and more efficiently. Plus, the machines don’t need vacations or health care.

Yet another fact is many of the deep coal beds in the state have been mined out. To mine what is left — shallower beds — coal companies have opted for mountaintop removal mining. In that scenario, heavy equipment is doing the actual mining, not people.

For at least a generation, West Virginia has been at a crossroads between hanging onto the fraying thread that is King Coal and grabbing onto a different rope that may offer a long-term economic strategy and prosperity. It’s time to choose a road.

If West Virginia and its leaders persist in scraping out every ounce of coal remaining in the state’s strata, there won’t be a West Virginia to scrape it out of once they are finished.

For many years, coal was the cheapest form of energy. It had the monopoly on heating homes, heating institutional and industrial buildings and providing energy to power plants. That is changing.

Every industry is changing, even the media. For two centuries, newspapers owned the monopoly on providing community news. The Internet has changed that forever, and now newspapers are developing new business models to survive.

Employees of many industries have seen their jobs change and cease to exist. They’ve had to re-educate themselves or retrain themselves to be competitive for the jobs that are available.

Is the coal industry supposed to be immune to the same economic and technological factors that are pushing other industries to change and adapt?

The coal industry is one player in a free-market economy in which consumers have a choice and not all of them are choosing coal.

Coal is a viable energy source whose producers should be allowed to compete in the market, but the producers of other energy sources should have that same prerogative.

While West Virginia has always been an energy-rich state, those reserves won’t last forever. It’s time to diversify.

The message that should be taken from the “war on coal” ads is that West Virginia has a choice and a chance to find a way to bring in other industries to replace the coal jobs that are being lost. The bottom line is state residents want good jobs. They would work in other industries if they could earn comparable wages and benefits that coal jobs provide.

People should vote for whom they choose, but if there is a war on coal, the generals of that war are the consumers who are choosing energy sources other than coal. And that’s a whole lot more people than the American president.

— Young is a Register-Herald columnist. E-mail: ynerissa@frontier.com.

© 2012 by Nerissa Young