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Cliff Staten: King Coal politics more complicated than industry lets on

Nov. 12, 2012 @ 10:45 PM

Traveling back and forth to my home state of West Virginia over the past three years, I have seen the number of anti-EPA road signs, bulletin boards and television commercials proliferate. The Marshall-WVU football game has been dubbed the "Friends of Coal" game.

The massive media offensive by the coal industry against new EPA rules and EPA enforcement of current rules dominates the politics of the state. Of course, it is important to remember that the coal industry has dominated state politics since the early 1900s. It is an industry that typically gets whatever it wants and rarely compromises. The current debate is much more complicated than what the coal industry suggests in its 30-second sound bites and on its billboards.

West Virginia coal is facing intense competition from the cheaper and more efficient coal industry in the west, especially Wyoming. West Virginia coal has become much more expensive in recent decades due to the depletion of easily accessible coal reserves and much higher unionization rates compared with easily accessible coal and very low unionization rates in Wyoming.

In 2006 the cost of a short ton of coal in West Virginia averaged five times the cost of a short ton in Wyoming. Due to these rising costs, the coal industry increasingly practices mountain top removal, a damaging ecological practice that has destroyed hundreds of square miles of southern West Virginia.

More importantly, coal is facing competition from the growing natural gas industry across the country. Natural gas is not only cheaper; it is friendlier to the environment. With escalating cases of black lung and other illnesses, the coal industry is being challenged as never before by public health groups, the medical community and unions who are concerned about the health of their members. West Virginia ranks near the very bottom compared with other states in terms of public health indicators. Finally, it is significant to point out that within the time frame of the next generation there will be more competition for coal -- green energy.

What cannot be overlooked is that the politics of coal in West Virginia is currently made even more intense, personal and emotional because of the long recession. The most important part of the recent election debate concerned the ability to be employed, to make a decent living, to work in a safe environment and to provide for one's family.

Yet, the number of mining jobs and jobs tied to the coal industry was declining prior to the recession and will continue after the recession. While 45 percent of the power plants in this country are fueled by coal, that percentage is declining. The Energy Department recently estimated that one-sixth of the remaining coal-powered power plants in the U.S. will be replaced with natural gas in the next eight years. I see the politics of King Coal in West Virginia as a struggling industry facing significant competition with western coal interests and the natural gas industry; future competition with green energy; and legitimate criticism from the health and medical communities and environmentalists.

Coal will still be important to the state beyond my lifetime, but it is time for the state to begin seriously to discuss and chart a course for the long run: a post-coal era. As a proud native of West Virginia and a union supporter, I believe that discussion of the state's post-coal era must include all involved, not just the powerful coal industry. It should take place not only in the halls of government but also in neighborhoods, the small towns, the cities, the union halls, the Chambers of Commerce, and perhaps most importantly in the schools and universities at all grade levels.

It is the current students and young people who have the most to gain or lose in the long run. If we believe that the economy of West Virginia is in a crisis, it is time for ALL to make sure there is a viable economy for our posterity. Simplistic slogans and solutions will not address the real problem.

Cliff Staten grew up in Kenova where his father worked on the N&W Railroad. He is a 1972 graduate of Ceredo-Kenova High School and received his bachelor's degree in 1976 and master's degree in 1979 from Marshall University. He received his Ph.D. in 1987 from the University of North Texas and is currently a professor of political science at Indiana University Southeast, where he teaches advanced courses on political economy, U.S. foreign policy and Latin America.

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