Could our own United States representative, Harold “Hal” Rogers, be completely clueless about the coal business and the hardships facing the region’s hundreds of out-of-work miners or was he just having a bad day?
That’s the question we were left asking ourselves Monday after watching Rogers talk for 30 minutes with reporter Neil Middleton on WYMT-TV’s public affairs program “Issues and Answers: Mountain Edition.”
Victims of the worst slump in the region’s coal economy since Rogers was first elected to federal office in 1980, jobless miners, their families and others affected by the current downturn are looking to their officials in Washington — and in Frankfort and Whitesburg, for that matter — for insight into what can be expected in the days, weeks, months and years to come.
On Monday night’s program, veteran reporter Middleton gave Rogers numerous opportunities to address the concerns many have about southeastern Kentucky’s economic future, even offering the 16- term congressman two direct questions from wives wondering if their husbands — one laid off 11 months ago and the other on January 4 — will ever be able to go back to the only work they have known.
How did Rogers respond? By blaming the loss of every coal job on the federal Environmental Protection Agency, recommending that the unemployed sign up for free retraining, and encouraging the rest of us to bide our time while hoping things get better.
While there is nothing wrong with Rogers touting the Eastern Kentucky Concentrated Employment Program’s new Hiring Our Miners Everyday (H.O.M.E) program that offers free assistance and training to help get jobless miners back into the workforce, or with encouraging those affected by the downturn to remain “optimistic,” coalfield residents deserve straight talk from one of the most senior members of the House of Representatives and longest-serving Republican ever elected to federal office in Kentucky.
Rogers does a disservice to the region when he continues to state — as he did on Monday night — that miners would be returning to work if only the EPA would lift its controversial objections to the issuance of permits for 36 surface mining operations in eastern Kentucky. Though he didn’t say so to reporter Middleton, Rogers must be well aware that the real reason southeastern Kentucky’s steam coal industry remains on the verge of collapse is because of the historic low prices electric utilities continue to pay for natural gas, some of which is being produced from shale deposits here in Letcher County.
Because of the low gas prices, coal’s share of the nation’s power generation equation has fallen from more than 50 percent to as little as 32 percent while the use of natural gas has risen to more than 30 percent. Coal’s role in making electricity will continue falling until the price of natural gas goes up. This harsh reality was made even more clear on February 1, when Duke Power, one the nation’s largest energy producers, cited the cheap price of gas in announcing that it will speed up the scheduled 2015 closings of two of its oldest coalburning power plants in North Carolina. The plants, which will now close in April, were built in 1926 and 1929.
In addition to the unprecedented glut of cheap natural gas, the U.S. is in the middle of what promises thus far to be another unusually warm winter, furthering the cut in the demand for coal by power plants. Coal inventories have now grown to the point it will take utility companies at least nine months to burn up what is already on the ground. This excess has cut the price of coal to the point that only companies with long-term contracts are able to keep producing. Many Central Appalachian companies that sell coal on the spot utility market have had to cease production, at least for now, because they can’t afford to sell their product for $66.50 a ton (the current spot price) when it costs them more than that to mine it.
Among the questions we have for Rep. Rogers is this: Where could the coal contained inside the boundaries of those 36 proposed surface mines be sold if the EPA were to suddenly lift its permit objections tomorrow? Does Rep. Rogers know something about the coal business that industry experts don’t?
As we noted in this space in October, there is a name for what elected officials are trying to sell us when they claim that miners would be put back to work if only Barack Obama’s EPA would loosen its environmental regulations — regulations that have been in the making since Congress created the agency during the Nixon administration in 1970. That product is called snake oil, and buyers should beware.
We can’t count on coal to be the economic salvation of our part of America in the 21st century. Instead of peddling false promises, Rep. Rogers needs to throw his considerable political weight into supporting legislation to create public-private investment in a massive, longterm U.S. infrastructure project that would put jobless miners and others to work modernizing our crumbling highways, bridges, public transportation, schools, clinics, and manufacturing facilities.
That would be the kind of real public service we have a right to expect from someone who claims to have his constituents’ best interests at heart. We deserve better than blather.