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The Coal Resource Curse … a path out of a morass.

September 24th, 2009 · 1 Comment

Below is a guest post by Clem Guttata from WVABlue, providing a window on the

Your lights are on,Flickr image credit: The Bill Hughes Gazette
but you’re not home,
your will is not your own
Might as well face it you’re addicted to coal.

Appalachia suffers from a resource curse. Coal mining wealth is illusory–the benefits have long been obvious to those dependent on Big Coal for a living even if the costs (largely hidden) were high. Yet, the costs are no longer as hidden and the benefits no longer so great.

Climate change legislation is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for our political leadership to take bold action to help diversify the Appalachian economy. So far, that leadership is lacking. Join me today in calling for Appalachian state officials, Congressional representatives and senators to to chart a new course. Let’s all kick the habit of the dirty black rock.

Appalachia is both blessed and cursed with abundant natural resources. Historically, coal has been a major employer and source of wealth for Appalachia. But–and it is a big BUT–there are three big problems with extraction industries like coal as a source of wealth:

  1. It concentrates wealth. West Virginia played a major role in the birth of modern unions. Coal mining extracts from its workers as much as from the land.
  1. Due to competition for employees, capital, and land, large-scale mining operations crowd out other development.
  1. There are a lot of socially, environmentally, and ecologically damaging by-products of the extraction and burning of coal. Some recent estimates shows the costs of Big Coal far out-weight the benefits.

Taken together, residents of the most coal rich portions of Appalachia are among the poorest in all other measures.

West Virginia’s State Rock

On the one hand, the black rock has been the economic bedrock for much of the West Virginian’s 143 years in existence. On the other, the history of coal is decades of long steady decline.

Within a decade of statehood, West Virginia began commercially exploiting its coal deposits. Coke production peaked in 1910 at 4,217,381 tons. Production of all types of coal peaked in 1997 at 181,914,000 tons. In 2008, production has dropped 9% from the peak to 165,750,817. Back in 1940, even before Sen. Robert C. Byrd was an elected official (he entered the West Virginia House of Delegates in 1946), West Virginia coal mining employment peaked at 130,457. By 2008, the number had dropped 84% to 20,927. (source)

Fig 2 in Chapter H of USGS Profession Paper 1625-F

Appalachian coal is no longer the lowest cost energy source. Western coal reserves are cheaper and less polluting. (Even West Virginia electric plants now get some of their coal from the Wyoming / Montana Powder River Basin.) Instead of the 100-200 years of United States coal supply the industry likes to claim, the truth is much closer to 100-200 months of economically viable major deposits remain in West Virginia.

Surface Mine Regional Productivity

Big Coal is now the tail that wags the dog in Appalachia.

The Resource Curse

What have you done for us lately?
Big coal, what have you done for us lately?

How can it be when West Virginia has enjoyed a Century-long abundance of valuable natural resources, it compares so poorly to the rest of the country economically?  How can it be that the counties with the most coal extracted are among the poorest places in the United States?

West Virginia suffers from a resource curse. The curse of natural resource wealth is extraction industries extract valuable items from the ground, take the wealth out of communities, and leave behind spent land and spent people.

Coal mining is a dirty business. Mountaintop removal is an even dirtier one – it requires a huge amount of land and crowds out all other potential nearby economic development.

In a recent presentation, Chris Hamilton of the West Virginia Coal Association said one of the challenges the coal mining industry faces is the lack of local workers. How ironic! If only the coal companies were better neighbors, there would be potential employees near coal mines! No wonder coal mines pay such high wages. There’s no one left nearby to work for them!

Mortgaging our Future

Coal is a non-renewable resource. Once we burn it, it is gone. One day it will all be gone.

We never ask for more than we deserve
Big Coal knows it’s the truth
They seem to think they’re God’s gift to this earth
We’re tellin’ ‘em no way

Fig 12 in Chapter H of USGS Professional Paper 1625-F

Our political leadership is playing with the future of the entire planet to feed their addiction to the black rock. It may be the only economic safety Appalachian politicians have ever known, but meanwhile neighboring states–hell, even China, India, Europe and the United Arab Emirates–are all laying the ground work for a softer landing when their non-renewable fuels run out.

Lifting the Curse

The Appalachian economy is addicted to the illusory wealth of Big Coal. The benefits of a few high paying jobs are obvious and immediate, the costs of environmental degradation and lack of economic diversity are easier to ignore. Millions of Americans benefit today from lower power bills, turning a blind eye as Appalachia turns into a national sacrifice zone.

There is a better way forward. Instead of spending billions in dollars to keep the coal industry on artificial life support, we should be investing those billions in the people of Appalachia. When the next shift of coal miners are laid off, they deserve economic opportunities that aren’t dependent on extraction industries.

I implore our elected officials to demonstrate a different kind of leadership focused on the needs of the people, not the needs of the corporations.

Take Action – Please help today!

This is where I really wish there was a bill or an ACES amendment in front of Congress I could ask you to contact Congress about. Unfortunately, no one is advocating directly for the people of Appalachia in climate change legislation. Until there is, here are some very worthy organizations:

Visit I Love Mountains to tell the Obama EPA to protect water quality and stop mountain top removal.

Support Coal River Wind to bring wind power to the Appalachian coal fields.

Support the nonviolent protests of Climate Ground Zero against mountain top removal in Appalachia.

Legacy of Coal is a newly-launched diary series inspired by the panels at Netroots Nation.  We hope to publicize the issues around coal use and mining, including MTR, the damage to less-politically-powerful areas of our country, and the general impact of energy and economic policy.  Of course, this leads to the broader issues of climate change, health care, and human rights.  While none of us can know everything about these issues, it is by working together we can make a difference.  If you would like to guest-host, please contact jlms_qkwATxmissionDOTcom.  This diary series is dedicated to our country’s coal miners and the people waiting for them to come home.

Photo credit: Anthracite Coal by The Bill Hughes Gazette, Blockquoted lyrics adapted from songs popularized by Robert Palmer and Janet Jackson.

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