Barack Obama need not ask how well he’s doing in coal country, because the answer is always the same: Not well.
A cerebral black man never had much of a chance in poor, rural white Appalachia; let’s be honest (though we don’t have to like it). In 2012, Obama lost to Mitt Romney in West Virginia by a 27-point margin. So Obama had little to lose politically in proposing new rules to cut carbon emissions from coal-fired power plants.
Some Democrats worry that coal country could deliver some vulnerable seats to Republicans, perhaps handing them the Senate majority. That could happen, but the fate of the planet should be more important than the 2014 midterms.
People in the Appalachian coal region don’t have much to lose, because they’ve already lost. The coal jobs started vanishing in the ’50s through mechanization. In just the past three years, Kentucky’s already-shrunken coal employment has fallen by half.
And even the coal is disappearing. Because the thicker seams are already mined out, Appalachia can’t compete with cheaper coal from the West and the Illinois Basin.
Anyhow, electric power plants already were replacing coal with cleaner, relatively cheap and abundant natural gas. The new rules only would speed the process.
“When policies and other factors cause serious economic problems for a region or group of Americans,” Jason Bailey writes in the blog “KY Policy,” “there is precedent for federal investments to help workers and communities adjust and transition.”
The operative words here are “adjust and transition.” That’s something the region’s politicians largely have failed to do, preferring time and again to rail against the “evil” Environmental Protection Agency and decry a “war on coal.”
That served the resource extraction industries but not the people, Ted Boettner of the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy told me. The people lost opportunities to parlay environmental legislation into federal help for getting out from under coal.
Back in 2009, there was talk of a cap-and-trade bill to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases. “A lot of money from the cap-and-trade system could have flowed back into West Virginia as investment in clean energy,” Boettner said.
There were proposals to help workers hurt by climate change legislation. The American Worker Transition and Community Assistance Act would have provided communities with grants to encourage entrepreneurs. It didn’t go anywhere.
Boettner remembers asking an energy staffer for Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., about it. The response, Boettner recalls, was, “Coal miners don’t want handouts.”
Boettner came back: “This isn’t a handout. West Virginia has been a sacrifice from its very beginning. We powered America, but we got very little in return.”
He goes on: “The coal thing is entirely frustrating. The bad part is that the political leaders in West Virginia are telling people that if you get the EPA off our backs, the era of milk and honey will return.”
As we speak, Democrats in coal country are running in circles, denouncing the proposed rules. Rep. Nick J. Rahall of West Virginia called it “devastating” at best, a “death blow” at worst.
Boettner does see some rays of light, however, on the political side. For example, Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear, a Democrat, and Rep. Hal Rogers, a Republican, talk openly about helping coal-producing counties diversify their economy – and propose directing severance tax funds paid by the coal industry to coal-producing counties for economic development.
Rogers went as far as to say, “Our best resources” are not coal. “It’s our people.”
There’s no soft economic landing for this region anymore – but it can be made less hard. Fortunately, the people are tough.