WV and Coal

Coal has been mined in West Virginia since before the Civil War. We all know that it has been a significant driver of the state’s economy and the political system since the late 19th century. Both political parties have been subservient to the power of the coal industry.

Coal has provided 10% or so of the state’s general revenue taxes for a very long time. Counties have depended on severance taxes for decades. But no longer. Had coal actually been good for the state’s people, land and water its decline would be an occasion for sadness. But it has been none of those things. Coal is declining and there is nothing to replace the revenues and jobs it generated.

The state’s tax revenues have declined quickly and steeply. There have been spending cutbacks followed by more cutbacks and yet more cutbacks are threatened. Agencies and schools have cut out all the fat (as if there was any) and are hard pressed to fulfill their responsibilities to the public.

Our readers know the cost of coal in West Virginia has been high, too high. The profits left the state and left us with ruined waterways, sick people and a legacy of exploitation.

For several decades observers have noted that the easy coal is gone and that WV should prepare to diversify the economy.   There have been seminars, conferences, gatherings, publications and musings about this need. We have wasted generations on such talk as there has been little followup action. Now there are even nonprofits focused on creating a viable sustainable future for West Virginia providing little glimmerings of hope.

Other industries have recognized the writing on the wall. Both CSX and NorfolkSouthern are reducing their presence in the state. AEP is not investing in new coal fired facilities. Banks are reducing their exposure to fossil fuels.   Pension funds are reducing their exposure. Green building standards and LED lightbulbs are becoming common. Yet our leaders cling to coal.

And now coal only provides 35% of America’s electricity.   Renewable energy is now 20% of generating capacity. Experts think we may have reached a tipping point and that renewable energy will overtake fossil fuels as the dominant electricity source within a generation.

But West Virginia’s business leaders and the Legislature cling to the fantasy that coal will come back, that all would be right with our corner of the world if only Obama’s clean power plan would be struck down by the courts. The coal industry’s complaints are not limited to the EPA. They claim severance taxes are too high, regulations too expensive to comply with, and West Virginia coal is therefore more expensive than, oh, say, Illinois basin coal. But even if the severance tax on West Virginia coal was eliminated, it would still be several dollars a ton more expensive than other coal.

It is so sad. It reminds me of what happened in Ohio and Michigan when the automobile industry leaders didn’t acknowledge the impact of customers flocking to imported vehicles. Neither state has really recovered from the miscalculations and self delusions of those in leadership positions

Industry leaders and politicians have misled the public and provided false hope. Generations of young adults have left the state in search of opportunity. Generations have been wasted while waiting for coal to provide economic stability , time that should have been spent modernizing our economy and providing new training opportunities for our citizens.

Now is the time to chart a new course for the future. We have no other choice. We are the ones we have been waiting for.

Updated: February 12, 2016 — 3:55 pm

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