The Best Political Choice for Coal Country Is Not the Obvious One

Bruce Maples (bruceinlouisville@gmail.com)
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The Cincinnati Business Courier reported in September that L’Oreal USA, a competitor of Procter & Gamble, will start construction in Florence later this year on the largest solar array in the state—5,000 panels—to supply electricity to its plant in northern Kentucky.

That’s electricity that won’t be coming from coal. And it’s no isolated case. There’s even a term for that trend of industries creating their own electricity supply—microgrids. It’s part of a larger trend that’s finding electricity from a lot of different sources, not just big power plants any more:

  • solar panels on rooftops and powering street signs;
  • wind farms you drive by in Indiana and Illinois;
  • manufacturers recycling waste heat into electricity production;
  • electric utility peak-shaving programs;
  • even Energy Star efficiency ratings on appliances.

They all add up to electricity that won’t be coming from coal.

Kentucky coal country opposes rules to control global warming, and favors Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton because they think he will “save” the local economies. But a business announcement last month shows why that conventional wisdom may not be the surest path for the revival of coal communities.

And canceling the EPA’s Clean Power Plan or pulling out of the Paris climate change agreement won’t change any of the trends in that previous paragraph.

Where Did Coal Go?

Climate change actions taken by the Obama administration and supported by Hillary Clinton do play a part in the decline of the Appalachian coal industry, but only as a part of worldwide trends. Even the Pope has weighed in on the side of acting to slow global warming, in his May 2015 encyclical.

An equal or even more significant reason for coal’s decline should be blamed on natural gas. In the 1960s, the technology to burn natural gas to make electricity took a huge jump in productivity with the development of combined-cycle gas plants. Those plants are much easier than coal plants to build, to shut down in times of lower electricity use, and to power back up when they’re needed. Natural gas also rides the climate-change trend, emitting about half the greenhouse gases of coal.

Then there was the fracking boom beginning about 10 years ago, driving down the price for natural gas so far that utilities across the country started switching from coal.

Coal’s not coming back. A better course for today’s declining coal-based economies would be to fully support work like KentuckyWired to bring high-speed broadband across Kentucky, starting in the east. Announced last year, that extremely logical Steve Beshear-Hal Rogers effort to diversify the region’s economy was endorsed by Matt Bevin in September. Bringing broadband to coal communities is also part of Clinton’s plan.

Clinton and Trump’s Coal Plans​

Clinton’s fact-sheet on how she would help coal communities runs six pages. Trump’s six-page May 26 speech covering his entire energy policy, includes bullets on rescinding the Clean Power Plan, canceling the Paris climate agreement, withdrawing support for U.N. climate programs, and a pledge to “save the coal industry.”

The difference between Clinton and Trump on coal is the difference between a direct and detailed recognition and plan for real-world conditions, and feel-good generalities and unrealistic and unexplained promises.

There is one smart avenue coal might look to as a way of addressing the industry’s decline: research into ways to capture greenhouse gases from coal power plants and put them to other uses. It’s expensive and uncertain technology. But the payoff would be huge for the coal industry—coal-fired power plants could meet terms of the Clean Power Plan. In fact, the plan’s requirement for new coal plants is that they use carbon capture.

Obama’s energy secretary supports the idea of carbon capture and supports funding research into the technology. China is investing heavily in carbon capture. Clinton’s fact sheet mentions support for carbon capture research. In Trump’s energy speech he pledged to reduce bureaucratic barriers to all areas of energy research. He said research should stand on its own, and that the government should not pick winners and losers in funding energy research.

The problem with the Trump position is that the cost risks for carbon capture are so massive that government support offers the only realistic way forward. So even in this longshot hope for the coal industry, Clinton at least mentions carbon capture as a possible way forward, while Trump refers more vaguely to government getting out of the way of innovation, including “solar and wind energy—but not to the exclusion of other energy.” There’s not much hope in Trump’s words to a coal industry advocate looking for carbon capture research support.

So even on carbon capture, which could be described as a last Hail Mary pass for the coal industry, Clinton offers more hope than Trump.

Clinton Is the Better Choice for Coal Country​

In this presidential campaign of caricatures it seems Appalachia is firmly in the grip of the myth that “Obama-Clinton killed coal and Trump will revive it.” It might feel good to be mad at mythological villains, but it’s a short-term sugar high. Coal country would do better to take more seriously Clinton’s fact sheet that describes: “… a $30 billion plan to ensure that coal miners and their families get benefits they’ve earned and the respect they deserve, to invest in economic diversification and job creation, and to make coal communities an engine of US economic growth …”

Regional coal communities may have already reached that conclusion themselves, despite the conventional wisdom.

In September the Sierra Club surveyed voters in Kentucky, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Virginia, and West Virginia. When it asked people to choose what “elected officials and decision-makers in your state should prioritize,” it found just 32 percent favored “Fighting government regulations that have made it harder to produce coal, to ensure the good paying jobs in mining come back.” Sixty-two percent favored “Assisting rural, coal-mining areas to attract new employers, diversify the economy, and ensure workers get new jobs in growing industries.”

Coal is not coming back. Rather than perpetuate the myth about who killed it, let’s do what those voters supported: help our coal miners and coal towns pivot to a new and better future.

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