Some Inconvenient Truths for Coal Country

I know places where there is high poverty, poor education, a high percentage of single parent households, large numbers of out-of-wedlock births, lots of violence, and enormous drug problems.  Generations have been living on the public dime, and despite various liberal programs the people there never seem to want to show any gumption to change that.  Conservative politicians would have you think that if only you took away all those programs, it would force people to stop demanding government services and special treatment, get jobs, and lift themselves out of poverty.     After all, “those people” are getting all sorts of things that “Real Americans” aren’t!

I’m sure that if you showed the opening paragraph to many people, particularly in western Pennsylvania, West Virginia, eastern Kentucky, and southern Ohio, they’d tell you all about those big city ghettos, or go on a rant about black or brown people who get things they don’t, and just want “free stuff” from the government.  I’m not.  I’m talking about them.  The ones who went overwhelmingly for Donald Trump in this past election.   Now, if you talk to them, they’ll all tell you how they’re not really like that, that it’s some other area, that they are hard working patriotic Christian Americans who are “down on their luck” due to circumstances beyond their control.  Not like those other lazy people … who happen to live in a city and are black or brown. You know what? That’s bullshit.  Several years ago, I wrote that conservatives were like vampires – they couldn’t see themselves in the mirror,  and that also applies to the eastern coal region.  If you look at the cold, hard figures, “Coal Country” is everything they say the stereotypical “ghetto” is.  It’s not even new, in fact that region was literally the poster child for Johnson’s “War on Poverty.”

But there’s another inconvenient truth that they can’t admit:  King Coal is dead.   Oh, they don’t want to admit it, and goodness knows that their politicians (of both parties) keep telling them that it’s going to come back real soon.  Of course, there’s also been a series of convenient scapegoats that those same politicians will point to, that if they’re elected they’ll “get rid of” and the good times will roll again.   It won’t.  They’re only keeping it on life support, telling the grieving family that a miracle cure is just around the corner, instead of telling them it’s time to pull the plug.  All it does is prolong the agony.

The reality is that coal has been losing markets for over a century.   Back around 1900, coal was used for most things.  Cities were lit with it (coal gasification), homes were heated with it, railroads and ships ran on it, and industries relied on it.   Today?  You’d be hard pressed to find it being used for most of those purposes.  It’s too expensive, inconvenient, and dirty.  Oil and natural gas have replaced them.  Well, what about electrical generation?  Besides hydroelectric plants, the original threat to coal power was nuclear.  That’s right, in the 1950’s and early ’60’s,  nuclear power plants were projected to replace all those coal plants.  The anti-nuclear advocates success only delayed coal’s demise, though.  Now solar and wind are replacing it, as is another fossil fuel:  Natural gas:

since 2000 coal’s market share has fallen from around 50% to this year’s estimated 32% (down 18%). Over the same time frame, the market share for natural gas has increased from around 15% to this year’s estimated 33% (up 18%). Thus, almost all of coal’s losses in the power sector since 2000 can be explained by increased natural gas consumption.

It’s also cheaper, both in direct costs and total costs.  You don’t have to have all the equipment to store and process coal for burning, you don’t have the additional maintenance requirements, and you don’t have to worry about disposing of ash.  In other words, it’s simply cheaper as well as a more flexible fuel, and no utility company is going to build a new coal plant or reopen an old one.   So the demand here in this country for coal is going to continue to decrease.  It’s not just in this country that the demand is decreasing.  While you may deny climate change, and yes, the Republicans are, the reality is that not only is it happening, the rest of the world believes in it and is taking steps to reduce their usage.  That’s besides the reality that they’re getting tired of breathing brown air, just as we did in the ’60’s.  So the export market isn’t going to save you.

However, even if there were an increased demand, the Appalachian coal mines would be the last to reopen.  Why?  There’s low sulfur, easier and cheaper to mine, plentiful coal out west – the Powder River basin.  After mechanization,  it’s one of the major reasons coal jobs have disappeared in the East.  One of the interesting parts of various coal companies bankruptcy filings was that they were making money out West, and losing money in the East.  Which means that the coal companies aren’t going to be in a rush to reopen your mines and start hiring.

You keep clinging to the hope that something will change.  Donald Trump promised your coal jobs would return.  You’ve been told it’s due to the EPA regulating coal, the “war on coal” by President Obama, and several other “burdensome” regulatory agencies that prevent coal mines in your region from reopening.  It’s not true.  The market decided that your coal wasn’t worth it.  Regulations may have sped things along in a few instances, but that’s all they did:  Speed the demise, not create it.

King Coal is dead, and it’s long since past the time to start planning what you’re going to do next.   Because the next thing on the Republicans agenda is to start taking away all those benefits you think you “deserve.”  You don’t deserve them any more than any one else.  You can sit around complaining all you want, but maybe this time when the jobs don’t appear, you’ll get the message.  But I’m not going to bet on it.

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4 Comments

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4 responses to “Some Inconvenient Truths for Coal Country

  1. dbtheonly

    Hey Norbrook,

    Would disagree to the extent that the Republicans are never going to eliminate those programs going to their supporters. Those are “vital government services”. Those programs primarily benefiting Democrats are “wasteful Federal spending”.

    But yeah, coal is dying.

    There’s a neat coal mining disaster museum on I-79 North, just over the PA line from WV. Worth a stop if you’re even in the neighborhood.

    • They’re cutting the general programs – and have already, like SNAP benefits. Where they tend to push is things that only benefit coal miners – the black lung payments and funding their pensions. Which makes any complaints from that area about other people getting “free stuff” subject to an “are you kidding?” reaction.

      It’s not just dying, for what is traditional “coal country,” it’s actually dead, just being kept marginally alive by extensive life support measures. Any hopes they had that rolling back (or removing) regulations would bring it back were just fantasy. That’s the consensus of the business press, the energy industry, and even the coal industry.

  2. Rose Weiss

    I’ve long been baffled by the political leanings of folks in coal country. My own community, across the country from Appalachia, is deep red and yet will be shocked and horrified when the Republicans cut Medicare and SS. In fact, they’ll be so shocked that they’ll find a way to blame it on the Democratic Party and/or Pres. Obama.

    • A lot of this is because they’ve been pointed at various scapegoats for years, both by their politicians and the coal companies. It was “the EPA” that did it, unions, or “the treehuggers,” that “forced” the coal companies to lose business, or forced them to have to cut back because of “all that regulation.” The actuality is that it was a combination of mechanization and “market cannibalization” that was doing it, and has been for years. The people who were really taking away their jobs were the oil and gas companies.

      I’ve noticed that a lot of senior citizens – and people nearing that – have absolutely no idea of how Social Security and Medicare work, and are funded. The core assumption I hear all the time is “I paid for that when I was working.” No, they didn’t, and I’ve shocked more than a few people around here by not only pointing that out, but backing it up with actual proof. I said to one person I know that “if people really understood this, they’d never in a million years let Republicans control Congress.” But there’s a lot of denial, in that “it won’t happen to me!”