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Coal Country Are Dying With The Coal Economy
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In the heart of Appalachia, in places like West Virginia and eastern Kentucky, life has long been built around coal, figuratively and literally. In the early 20th century, coal companies founded towns in the rugged and steep interiors of West Virginia to hold their workforces. But coal—and the traditional idea of coal country with it—is dying. Markets have embraced cheaper or cleaner alternatives. Natural gas has surpassed coal as the country's largest source of net electricity generation. Renewables are projected to increase by 72% by 2040. After years of coal booms and busts, "this is final," says Gwendolyn Christon, the owner of the IGA grocery store in Isom, Kentucky, and one of the many locals we spoke to in a trip across the region to document the future of coal country. "If we’re gonna stay here and prosper, we have to start looking for other ways of making a living. You have to do that quickly and not just sit back and wait for something to happen. It’s not going to depend on the federal government or someone coming in to rescue us. It’s going to be us going to work and doing it ourselves."
Throughout 2016, the decline of coal has been used as a political football, a metaphor for the damage done by liberal, environmentalist regulation to the working class. Hillary Clinton, who said that her energy plans would "put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business," lost enormously across Appalachia. Donald Trump, both during the campaign and since his victory, has promised to save the coal industry with energy reform that rescinds environmental efforts like Obama's Climate Action Plan; he’s also spoken of abolishing the Environmental Protection Agency, and there is concern he will ignore international climate agreements. In West Virginia, the newly elected Democratic governor, Trump-esque billionaire coal baron Jim Justice, is noncommittal on the existence of climate change and has pledged to "promote new uses for coal," incentivize power plants to use only West Virginia coal and bring back coal jobs. But economics might be a stronger force than rhetoric: Even with the prospect of supportive federal and state administrations, many power company executives—including ones in Appalachia—are declaring that coal is simply too cost-ineffective, and are continuing with plans to shut down their coal-fired power plants.
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But while coal country happens to be in the political spotlight today, the region is not unique in its susceptibility to the problems in which it finds itself. The 20th century has seen countless regional economies built on extractive and polluting industries that have been decimated by technological advancement and globalization: manufacturing in the Rust Belt, the auto industry in Detroit, the timber industry in the Pacific Northwest. As the coal industry dies—and make no mistake, it is dying—some in Appalachia are still clinging to a past that can’t save them, but many others are trying to find a way to create a new economy, focused on a future where the communities of Appalachia are more self-sustaining. In driving through the region this fall, we discovered that the lessons they’re learning and sharing will be vital as more and more industries—and the economies they support—fall victim to the same forces that are ending coal. The innovative web of entrepreneurs, community organizations, and government programs in Appalachia can serve as the model for the transition to a new economy for any community.

In places like West Virginia, where my colleague Elaine McMillion Sheldon and I are from, coal is a foundational part of the cultural identity. So much so that on a rainy day this August, when we drove past a modest lot of used cars on West Virginia's Route 19, the sign that loomed above it seemed completely normal: King Coal Pre-Owned Super Store. It might have held a certain significance now, as we crisscrossed West Virginia and eastern Kentucky, but we have driven by this sign and others like it dozens of times in our lives. To grow up in the heart of Appalachia is to internalize this narrative, whether your family has worked in the mines for generations (as in Elaine's case) or it hasn't (as in mine). Coal is king. Friends of coal. Coal keeps the lights on—until it doesn't.
"To say good-bye to coal—even if just to say good-bye to its halcyon days—is a profound spiritual and emotional decision for a people who have watched their family members work, suffer, and die underground."
The coal economy has been many things in and to Appalachia—pride, livelihood, environmental villain, political juggernaut—but it has never been particularly resilient. While U.S. coal production was on an overall increase from 1949 to the mid-2000s, that rise was peppered with spikes and plateaus, as well as fluctuations in the labor force. In the mid-20th century, mechanization and consolidation in the coal industry sent jobs plummeting. West Virginian mining jobs dropped from 125,000 to 65,000 between 1947 and 1954, eventually hitting 41,000 in 1968, which was at the time a 65-year low. (This era also marked a large regional migration to northern industrial cities, often referred to as the "Hillbilly Highway." Between 1940 and 1960, 7 million Appalachians left.) Eastern Kentucky’s production experienced sharp downward spikes in the late 1950s and '80s, West Virginia in the early '90s and early 2000s. Coal has always brought booms as well as busts.
There is much evidence to suggest that Appalachia’s last boom has come and gone. Even without the rise of renewables, the bottom has fallen out of the coal market. The driving force in the decline of U.S. coal production is the booming shale gas market. Last year, for the first time, natural gas surpassed coal as the country's largest source of net electricity generation. And coal from the western United States—where coal is generally cheaper and mined less labor-intensively in surface mines—is supplanting Appalachian coal. (The country's biggest coal producer today is, by far, Wyoming.) Global exports, which account for an estimated 27% of West Virginia’s coal production, are also down.
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Coal production here has been in overall decline since 1990, dropping by 45% between 2000 and 2015; in eastern Kentucky, production has plummeted by 80%. West Virginia, Appalachia's biggest coal producer, produced 168 million short tons in 2008. If this year's output continues at pace, that number is expected to hit 68 million, the state's lowest annual output in a century. Long-term forecasts are similarly low: the West Virginia University Bureau of Business and Economic Research (BBER) projects state coal production to fall to fewer than 67 million short tons by 2036. (Back in 2009, Charleston Gazette-Mail writer Ken Ward Jr., long an important voice in this conversation, pointed out that the Appalachian Basin could hit "peak coal"—the point of maximum production, after which it’s all downhill—as early as 2020.) Between 2000-2015, Appalachia lost more than 9,300 coal jobs, and major mining companies like Alpha Natural Resources have filed for bankruptcy, leaving behind devastated livelihoods and devastated earth. WVU's BBER sees only .5% job growth in the state’s natural resources and mining sector (with all of those jobs coming in natural gas) over the next five years; it expects coal industry employment to contract by an average annual rate of 2% per year through 2021.

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