Coal will still be mined in eastern Kentucky for generations to come, but the companies that do the mining will be much smaller than the large corporations that dominate the industry here today.
That’s the opinion of Kentucky Coal Association President Bill Bassett, who was speaking with a reporter from the newsletter Marketplace.
In an article published earlier this week, Bassett tells Marketplace reporter Sarah Gardner that coal will “continue to be mined for generations to come, but the industry won’t be the same driving force in the region’s economy as it has been for the past 100 years.
“Chances are,” Bassett says, “companies will be more privately owned, less multinational in footprint, and they’ll likely be taking more advantage of the spot markets than long term contracts, which can create uncertainty but I think at the same time it still provides livelihoods and puts food on people’s tables.”
In an article headlined, “In Kentucky, who’s to blame for coal’s decline,” Marketplace’s Gardner talks with area residents and coal industry observers from here and elsewhere as she looks at the causes of the 16 percent unemployment rate that can be found in Letcher and other coalproducing counties in southeastern Kentucky.
“Some point the finger at what they call President Obama’s ‘War on Coal,’” Gardner writes.
“I blame (Obama) for trying to regulate coal fired power plants,” Ryan Trent, a 30-year-old unemployed miner from Perry County told Gardner. “Because if it weren’t for that, we’d still have jobs.”
The director of the Kentucky Center for Economic Policy, Jason Bailey, told Gardner that southeastern Kentucky has lost 40 percent of its coal-related jobs in the last two years alone.
Former Whitesburg resident Justin Maxson, now president of the Berea-based Mountain Association for Community Economic Development ( MACED), told Gardner that the huge job losses have left many people in eastern Kentucky feeling “to some degree like they’re under cultural assault.”
“To lose almost 7,000 jobs in almost 18 months is a catastrophe,” Maxson said. “It’s a huge economic collapse.”
While some blame the industry’s collapse on Obama, others say the region’s current mining woes are tied to simple economics and resource depletion.
“The cost to mine the coal in Wyoming is $10 a ton,” Michael Dudas, senior research analyst for coals, metals and mining, engineering and construction for the New York investment firm Sterne Agee told Garder. “ The cost to mine that coal in eastern Kentucky can range from the low to mid-40s to upwards of $70 a ton.”
“Much of the easy-to-get coal has already been mined out,” Gardner writes. “What’s left is harder to get, so production costs are higher.”
“The coal seams, they’re getting smaller,” Ryan Trent told Gardner. “You’ve got strata in between it, which is not full coal. So the more rock you cut, the less coal you’re getting.”
Retired coal miner Lee Sexton, 86, of Carcassonne agrees that it is not as economically feasible as it once was to mine coal in this region.
“I don’t hardly see how there can be any more coal in these mountains,” Sexton, who suffers black lung, told Gardner. “There’s been so much of it taken out, you know.”
Gardner was also told that eastern Kentucky’s coal industry is being harmed by coal from the Illinois Basin of the U.S., which includes western Kentucky. Even though that coal is much higher in sulfur content, it now meets federal emissions standards when burned in power plants equipped with proper scrubbers.
Kentucky Power Company President Greg Pauley told Gardner that his utility will continue to cut its coal use no matter where the tonnage comes from.
“As the cost of using coal continues to rise, we go away from that,” Pauley said. “And what do we go away to? Right now we go to gas.”
Gardner also interviewed Whitesburg resident Dee Davis, who said it is now up to the region’s residents to figure out how we can continue to make a living here as the coal industry continues to dwindle.
“Coal is our history,” said Davis, founder of Center for Rural Strategies. “Coal is our heritage. It’s been one pathway into the middle class for a lot of families. It’s been a friend, but it’s not our future.”