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Appalachian miners decry what they call Obama's 'war on coal'

Coal allies say Obama's coming plans for combating climate change could slash industry jobs and tax revenue in mining states such as West Virginia.

September 17, 2013|By Neela Banerjee
  • Many in the coal industry believe the Obama administration is ideologically committed to killing coal.
Many in the coal industry believe the Obama administration is ideologically… (Bill Estep / Lexington Herald-Leader )

LOGAN, W.Va. — When President Obama laid out ambitious plans in June for combating climate change, coal miners like Roger Horton heard what they considered the latest fusillade in the administration's "war on coal."

Until his retirement two weeks ago, Horton, 59, worked underground for decades in southern West Virginia's Logan County, then operated a 200-ton earth-moving truck to remove debris from blasted mountaintops.

A milestone in Obama's initiative will come this week, when the Environmental Protection Agency is expected to issue rules limiting emissions from new power plants. Next June, the EPA is to propose standards for existing plants.

Miners, industry and coal-state politicians warn that, depending on how the rules are crafted, they could slash utilities' coal consumption and, with it, jobs and tax revenue in mining states.

"There are lots of reasons to use coal," Horton said, sitting in the empty lobby of a conference center built on a flattened mountain. "And if they would just let us have the permits to mine, we wouldn't have enough people in the area for all the jobs available."

The widespread conviction that the Obama administration is waging a war on coal is in part shaped by Appalachia's decades of economic decline and loss of mining jobs. In struggling Logan County, the population is about half what it was 50 years ago. A flight over the area reveals mountaintops sliced away. Residents say prescription drug abuse is endemic. Young people often move away, leaving West Virginia as the state with the third-highest proportion of residents over age 65.

Daniel Johnson, 32, is among the few younger people to return. After years away as a rock band technician, Johnson and two partners bought Logan's defunct Nolletti family bakery and opened a cupcake shop. His father was a coal miner, as are many of his friends. People here hold onto the possibility of coal jobs, because there's little else that pays as well, Johnson and others said.

"Here, it's either $90,000 a year or a hand-to-mouth existence," said Johnson, sitting inside his store dressed in a Nine Inch Nails T-shirt touting the rock band's album "The Downward Spiral." He nodded toward the street as a Range Rover, then a Volvo, drove by. On the sidewalk, a stick-thin woman Johnson thought was an addict paced in the bright sunshine. "See what I mean?"

To coal's allies, the EPA is the tip of the administration's spear. They point to the agency's involvement in reviewing permits for mountaintop removal mining, its rules on smokestack mercury emissions, and the impending greenhouse gas standards. Although the rules are usually mandated by law or court rulings, coal's backers say the boom times could return if the EPA got out of the way.

"Billions of tons could be mined if they let us mine the way we need to," removing mountaintops, said Art Kirkendoll, a state senator and former Logan County miner. "Once you leave it flat, you have a place where you can diversify the economy with office parks and wind turbines."

"Coal is the only industry we've got, all we've ever had," said Serafino Nolletti, Logan's mayor.

But coal's role in the state economy has been waning for 50 years. Mechanization stripped away mining jobs, and the shuttering of the domestic steel industry and much other manufacturing eroded coal consumption.

Coal is the third-largest contributor to the state's gross domestic product, but employs less than 5% of the state's workforce — far less than other industries, according to Jeremy Richardson, a West Virginia-raised physicist and fellow at the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Coal jobs in West Virginia are more numerous today than when Obama began his first term, but far from their peak. The data mask the troubles in southern counties like Logan, however, where the biggest coal deposits in the area have largely been mined.

Now, companies are exploiting narrow seams and need more miners to extract the coal. But by the end of the decade, southern West Virginia coal production will fall sharply, while northern coal production will rise modestly, according to the Energy Information Administration, the Energy Department's research arm.

Many in the coal industry believe the Obama administration is ideologically committed to killing coal. They contend that little federal research money goes to technologies that would keep coal plants viable, with most of it funneled instead to alternative energy companies that sometimes go bankrupt. They say Obama and various aides have made comments over the years about ending coal.

The administration says there is no war on coal, and that it has invested more than $6 billion into researching technology to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from coal and $8 billion into a new effort for advanced fossil fuel research. The $34-billion loan guarantee program for a range of energy projects, including renewables, was started under the George W. Bush administration and has a failure rate of about 2%.

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