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Coal’s role and politics



It’s been an odd, but fascinating couple of weeks for coal.

The once-leading provider of electricity in America is continuing its fall on the energy landscape. Where the freefall will end is anyone’s guess.

But it was coal’s political players that stole the show recently here in eastern Kentucky and away. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell was in Pikeville last week for the Southeast Kentucky Chamber of Commerce’s membership luncheon, and the Senator stood at the podium as the event’s keynote speaker.

The lyrics to the song McConnell sang from the podium were unchanged from previous appearances. “Obama,” “coal,” “EPA.” They were all there, as usual, and his message remained unchanged. In summary form, “Keep electing me so I can keep fighting Obama.”

After McConnell’s address, the Senate Majority Leader spoke to a group of about a half-dozen reporters, and fielded three questions about coal.

The first, a question from the Associated Press. The reporter asked McConnell how he justified blocking a miners’ pension bill, which he’d blocked in the past. McConnell said the Senate was bogged down with a “crush of business” at the end of the year.

The second, from myself in my EKB News duties, revolved around Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump’s views on coal and his confidence in Trump in regard to coal. McConnell, of course, said Trump was his guy.

“I think Mr. Trump has made it very clear he’s pro-coal, and if he were to be elected, I think we would be in better shape unless Hillary Clinton has a different point of view after the election from what she expressed before the election,” McConnell said.

Appalachian News-Express Editor Russ Cassady fired the third question, asking if Mc- Connell thought coal could be “brought back,” despite market forces moving the industry in the other direction. McConnell, at that point, gave some interesting insight, while not saying whether he thought it could be brought back to prominence domestically.

“Coal has a future, the question is whether or not coal has a future in this country,” McConnell said, adding that European nations are purchasing coal on the worldwide market.

He went on, again, to blame the damage to the coal industry on the Obama Administration, saying that blaming market forces — particularly the rise of natural gas — for coal’s demise is merely a diversion from the “core problem”; that being the Obama Administration. McConnell ended questions there.

The same day, McClatchy DC online newspaper reporter Curtis Tate reported that Kentucky Power President and CEO Greg Pauley told the Kentucky Governor’s Conference that coal is not coming back, “no matter who is elected (president) in November.” Coincidentally, it was Kentucky Power who sponsored the membership luncheon for the Southeast Kentucky Chamber of Commerce.

The report goes on to say that Pauley said, in stark contrast to McConnell’s assertion, that natural gas “is the primary reason why coal is on the ropes,” and gas and wind are the “price winners,” since conventional coal capacity is no longer cost effective to build. Pauley’s remarks were made in late September at the Kentucky Governor’s Conference on Energy and the Environment, just days before the cooling tower for one of the Kentucky Power Big Sandy power plant’s power generators was imploded as part of the dismantling of that portion of the plant. Many have placed the closure of that part of the plant on coal’s demise at Obama’s hands. The other generator has been retrofitted to run on natural gas.

Fast forward a day, to October 5, and the man who is perhaps coal’s most controversial figure, former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship was back in the headlines.

We hadn’t heard much from Don B. since he was sent to federal prison in the spring to serve his year-long sentence on conspiring to willfully violate mine safety standards. The conviction was fallout from the 2010 Upper Big Branch (UBB) mine explosion that killed 29 West Virginia coal miners.

Blankenship penned a manifesto claiming to be “An American Political Prisoner.” Let that sink in for just a moment.

In his 67-page composition, Blankenship claims, as reported by national media, that he is innocent and that he is in federal prison because UBB should have had a few more miners, and that not having those miners caused safety violations to occur. He went on to say that his conviction was self-serving for politicians.

“I am an American Political Prisoner,” he wrote.

The name Don Blankenship will never not be attached to controversy, and will always be a black eye on coal. Everyone understands that. Everyone, but Don Blankenship.

Backtrack a day, and President Barack Obama is brought back into the coal discussion — this time, by his own words.

Obama penned an op-ed for the U.S. Department of Agriculture discussing the Strength and Resilience of Rural America. And in it, he mentions Pikeville, of all places.

“In Pikeville, Kentucky, former coal miners are trading coal for code,” the President wrote. “They’re retraining to learn HTML, JavaScript, and PHP, transforming an old bottling factory into a digital hub. It’s a transition that not only supports good jobs, but also offers a glimpse of what the future could look like in other communities like Pikeville.”

Obama was talking about BitSource in Pikeville. The business has intentionally employed laid-off coal miners and put them to work writing computer code. It’s a fascinating effort, and, obviously, it’s getting some attention. The odd part of all this is that the President is talking about Pikeville, where he’s less popular than a flat tire on a rainy day.

And then there’s Donald Trump again.

Sunday night was the second presidential debate, and it was every bit as crazy and disgraceful as one would imagine. It did feature some quotables, though.

The most relevant quote to this piece is not the “jail” one, although that one was the funniest. It was Trump’s assertion that coal will last for “1,000 years.”

“And you look at our miners. Hillary Clinton wants to put all the miners out of business,” Trump said during the debate. “There is a thing called clean coal. Coal will last for 1,000 years in this country.”

Trump went on to tout the unlimited resources of energy he wants to build up, including natural gas; the same natural gas Kentucky Power CEO Greg Pauley said is defeating the coal industry.

As usual, Trump’s remarks were not followed by details of a plan to make his thousand-year remark a reality.

Coal and the people that dug it are becoming a tragic story more and more each day. And the top 1 percent’s statements and views on coal and those coal miners are becoming more and more clouded each day.

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Chris Anderson is a lifelong Jenkins resident and contributing writer and photographer for The Mountain Eagle. He is employed by EKB television in Pikeville.



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