By ROGER HORTON, president

Citizens for Coal

More than 10,000 coal miners and another 50,000 support workers and people whose jobs depend on coal mining are now unemployed across West Virginia, western Virginia and Kentucky. These people are unemployed today for one primary reason – the anti-coal policies of the Obama Administration. While it is true that part of the problem in the short term is the artificially and unsustainably low prices of natural gas, the Obama Administration and the EPA have made it next to impossible to use coal as a fuel for electric generation or even to mine it in the first place.

These factors have led many utility companies to take steps to close older coal-fired power plants and it appears likely if the policies continue into the future, even newer coal plants will begin closing. Meanwhile, it is almost impossible to get the permits necessary to mine steam coal – which has historically accounted for approximately 60 percent of the area’s production.

The result of all this is a steep decline in production – from 168 million tons in 2008 to just 110 million tons in 2012 in West Virginia and an even sharper decline in Kentucky. Employment has fallen just as steeply, with seemingly weekly announcements of another mine closing taking hundreds more jobs with it.

Meanwhile, our electricity grid is strained to meet demand – with rolling blackouts imposed in rural areas of the PJM Connections district three weeks ago. While it was couched as a “voluntary demand response” to meet temporary conditions, the reality no matter how you cut it is that the grid was short of capacity and “voluntary” rolling blackouts were imposed to cut demand allowing the grid to avoid massive blackouts in urban areas.

That said, as long as the Obama Administration remains in control of the situation through the EPA and its lapdog Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) and the Democratic majority in the Senate, nothing will change and the situation for our coal mining communities will likely get worse. Entire communities stand to disappear and our area’s economy will fall into decay.

If we can’t prevent the closure of existing coal-fired capacity, it is unlikely that new coal-fired plants will be built in the near future. So once the domestic steam coal market is lost it is lost for the foreseeable future.

So what do we do here in the coalfields to protect our families and our communities?

It is imperative that we begin today to create a multi-pronged attack plan – one that takes on the problem from several angles – protecting as best we can what we have, making the best possible use of the resources at our disposal, and leveraging other resources in order to build the future we want for our people and our region. Trust me … no one is coming to our assistance. We have to do this ourselves or we might as well turn the lights off at the old home place, board up the windows and move to Texas.

Now, what would this multi-pronged plan look like?

THE POLITICAL ANGLE

First, we have to protect what we have. We have to come together as a people and face the future with open eyes. We have to forget about partisan or “faction” politics and begin working together to make sure we send to Washington people who will defend West Virginia jobs – coal jobs and all jobs. Many of us are lifelong Democrats, but the “Democrats” in Washington today have nothing in common with the values of West Virginia. While we may have some differences of opinion with the Republican Party, it is clear that their positions on issues that are vital to our future are more in line with our needs than those of Obama, Biden, Reid and the national Democratic leadership.

Now to be sure, local Democrats are working with us – folks like Art Kirkendoll, Rupie Phillips, and our locally elected officials have stood shoulder to shoulder with us at rallies and hearings and they deserve our gratitude, but when it comes to those people we send to Washington, we have to look at the big picture and that is control of the Senate. The GOP-led House of Representatives has passed one pro-coal bill after another only to see them die in the Obama-Biden-Reid controlled Senate. So we have to shift control of the Senate to the GOP in order to have any hope of forcing an end to the Obama war on coal.

THE ECONOMIC ANGLE

Next, we have to our eyes open to the reality on the ground as well as opportunities that present themselves or that we can create for ourselves.

On the local level here in West Virginia, we have to take a second look at our coal severance taxes and bring more of the money back home to the coalfields to provide the resources needed to build the infrastructure and provide the seed capital needed to develop and diversify our economy. Today, 93 percent of the coal severance taxes go to the state’s general fund, some of which is used for projects in the coalfields. Less than 7 percent is specifically directed back to the coalfields communities. I believe more of this existing revenue should be channeled back to the coalfields by creating two revolving investment funds modeled on the successes of the School Building Authority.

Taking another 10 percent of the current severance taxes would provide $50 million annually that could be used to create an “angel capital” investment fund to help start-up businesses in the region, as well as additional money for infrastructure needs such as upgrades to water and sewer systems, the development and marketing of industrial parks and the building of shell buildings on former surface mines to attract other new businesses to the region.

In addition to this funding source, we should begin to look at the Abandoned Mine Lands fund, $2.5 billion dollars currently sitting around doing nothing. This money should be sent back to the states that produced the coal and channeled into economic development and diversification. It should NOT simply be dumped into the states’ general funds but, again, should be converted into a funding source for a revolving investment fund to be used for the development and diversification of the region. We are not talking about giveaways or “grants” but true economic development investment funds that are used to establish and fund loan programs and “seed capital investments.”

I have heard others suggest additional taxes on coal to create such a fund, but it is not reasonable or economically feasible to add new costs to the mining of coal. Our industry is already struggling to survive the onslaught of the Obama Administration and adding cost would simply make it even more difficult for our coal to compete against natural gas or even coal from other regions.

One possible use of the investment dollars is to fund research and commercialization of CCS and coal gasification technologies so that our coal can continue to be used even in an Obama-created environment.

CURRENT RESOURCES ANGLE

Now, where do we make these investments once we get these investment funds established?

Obviously we can’t fund every project or put a shopping center, recreational facility, industrial park or residential area on top of every mountain in the region. We need good, high quality, forward-thinking economic development and land use plans developed in every county as well as the state level. We need to identify economic development “hubs” or “magnet” zones where major development can be sustained – located close to existing or planned interstate highways, railroads and airports. We can focus development in these areas through the use of small business incubators in conjunction with the seed capital and investment funds. We can also add shopping centers, residential areas and recreational areas in planned developments around the industrial hub zones, essentially creating new communities or supporting existing ones within easy commuting distance of the more rural areas of the region.

We have plenty of former mine sites that can easily be used as sites for the economic development. I look at the example of the High-Tech Corridor along I-79. An entire new economic segment was developed around the building of the FBI Center. In conjunction with the creation of the High Technology Consortium, a business incubator and investment fund, thousands of high paying jobs have been created in just a few short years.

We can have this same kind of success across the region with a solid plan and the passion to follow through.

Now I admit I don’t have all the answers, but I think this vision is the path forward for our people and our region.

PROTECTING COAL

None of this can be accomplished, however, without the jobs and revenues of the coal industry. We have to work together to protect our most basic industry. It provides the jobs we need today and revenue we need to turn this long-term vision into a reality.  Working together with economic development officials, the coal industry can be a strong, active partner in this effort, creating the land to be used for sites, helping prepare the infrastructure, improve roads and expand access to the region. Beyond this, the thousands of retirees in our region depend on current coal production to fund their retirement plans. Without coal being mined, many of our retirees would face the same fate we all hope to avoid with the Patriot bankruptcy.

Our region’s elected officials and business leaders must take every step necessary to protect our coal industry. This isn’t just important for us, it is important for America’s future.

I believe it is vital that we keep our electric generation grid nimble and able to readily switch between fuels, including coal, natural gas, oil and renewables. I remember clearly five years ago – before the beginning of the “Great Recession” – when our economy and the world’s economy was humming along. We were screaming out for every ton of coal, every gallon of oil, every cubic foot of natural gas and every other source of energy we could find. Prices of all forms of energy were going out the roof because supply couldn’t keep up with demand.

Hopefully, we will find our way out of the current economic downturn and restore our economy and that of the world to something approaching normal and when we do we will once again find our economy needing all sources of fuel.

If we retire coal-fired capacity and essentially shut the door to it in the future, we are setting the stage for a major inflationary spiral in our energy costs and with it the downstream costs of every other good in our economy.

We need to protect our coal-fired capacity in order to provide for the widest possible fuel choice down the road.

TYING IT ALL TOGETHER

It all begins and ends with us. Do we really want to build a future here in West Virginia and Appalachia or are we willing to accept our region becoming a new national park – a beautiful place but one without people?

Are we willing to stand up and do what is necessary to build that future – to stand up and demand that future? Or are we content to settle into long-term poverty and a future diaspora of our people from the region of our birth?

I am not! And I don’t think you are either.

Let’s begin this process today. Join me and Citizens for Coal and all the other coal support groups. Get involved in your local community and help us get started. Hold our elected officials accountable – even down to the local level. Does your county have an economic development plan? A land use plan? Do you know what is in it? Are you answering the call when we ask you to call your elected officials, your Congressional representatives, and others to demand an end to the assault on our people?

Are you taking a stand in your local communities against the social decay we are seeing – the drug abuse, the alcoholism, the theft and corruption? Or are you content to shut your doors and triple lock them in a vain effort to keep the evil out?

As the great Winston Churchill said, “Sometimes it is not enough to do our best, sometimes we must do what is required.”

That time is now…..

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