Coal, Energy Discussion Reveals Common Ground on Several Issues

by John Gregory | 08/27/14 9:36 AM

It's not often that all, or even most, of the guests on Kentucky Tonight agree on key points of an issue, much less topics as potentially divisive as coal and energy policy.

But the panel did find agreement on Monday's program - multiple times, in fact. The guests were Bill Bissett, president of the Kentucky Coal Association; Sarah Lynn Cunningham, an environmental engineer and educator, and director of the Louisville Climate Action Network; Tom FitzGerald, director of the Kentucky Resources Council; and Steve Gardner, president and CEO of ECSI and president-elect of the Society for Mining, Metallurgy, and Exploration. Here's where the panel found common ground, and several areas where they disagreed.

Points of Agreement
When asked whether energy policy should be a state or federal issue, Tom Fitzgerald replies that it's a state, national, and international issue. He explains that the surge in the natural gas production from shale rock formations across America has "set the energy world on its head." The result has been especially hard for the coal industry, as utilities and some manufacturers seek to switch their power generation to cheaper natural gas.

Engineer Steve Gardner says the worldwide energy economy means that local issues can have global relevance. He concurs with FitzGerald's assessment of the shale gas revolution, saying none of his geology colleagues would've guessed five years ago that natural gas would be as big as it is. Now Gardner says other countries such as Brazil are looking to replicate America's strategies of shale gas development.

The Kentucky Coal Association's Bill Bissett and activist Sarah Lynn Cunningham also agree that energy policy must be looked at locally, nationally, and internationally. But Cunningham adds a fourth level to the equation: the personal, "because each of us every day makes decisions on how we're going to use energy."

Legal Issues with New Greenhouse Gas Rules
Both sides of the panel found potential issues with a draft rule proposed by the Obama Administration earlier this year, which calls for a 30 percent reduction in carbon dioxide emissions by 2030.

The coal industry contends that the EPA doesn't have the authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from existing plants, as the new plan proposes. Attorneys General from a dozen states are suing the federal government over the issue. Bill Bissett commends Kentucky Attorney General Jack Conway for joining that lawsuit.

Tom FitzGerald disagrees with that particular challenge, but he does see another potential problem area. Instead of setting specific limits for each power plant, the EPA proposal calls for states to devise emission reduction plans that include a mix of strategies, including upgrades to existing power plants, investments in renewable energy, and efforts to make homes and businesses more energy efficient.

FitzGerald applauds measures to reduce demand on the consumer side of the power meter, saying that's cheaper and more efficient than switching mammoth power plants from coal to natural gas. But he fears there could be a legitimate legal issue over addressing power plant performance with things that happen outside of the facility.

Coal Will Continue to Be Mined
Despite reduced demand for central Appalachian coal, which generally has a lower sulfur content but is more expensive to retrieve, the panel agrees it will continue to be mined for years to come. While production in the region is at its lowest level in 50 years, Bissett says eastern Kentucky still produces some 40 million tons a year. But he cautions that domestic coal does face increasing competition from cheaper coal coming into the United States from countries with lower health, safety, and environmental standards.

Steve Gardner says the industry is poised to help share its mining expertise with those other countries, especially those under-developed nations that suffer from what he calls "energy poverty."

"We can develop and export a lot of our technology to help the world use their resources in an environmentally responsible manner," Gardner says.

Fitzgerald agrees that energy poverty in some countries has the potential to generate additional markets for Kentucky coal in the years ahead.

Jobs for Unemployed Miners
The panel also agreed that more should be done to assist displaced coal industry workers. Cunningham and FitzGerald contend that unemployed miners could easily be retrained for jobs to make homes and businesses more energy efficient with better insulation and energy-saving furnaces and appliances.

"A significant investment in energy efficiency will save money, improve the quality of life, maintain jobs, and create jobs in the regions that need them;" FitzGerald says.

Bill Bissett agrees that the region's high-quality workforce could be employed in other areas - if jobs are available. A native of Appalachia, he says his greatest fear is that people will have to leave the region to find work. But he believes the people who live in coal-producing regions have to devise their own futures, and not rely on having the answers come from people in urban areas.

FitzGerald commends the Shaping Our Appalachian Region (SOAR) initiative as being a grassroots effort that shows real promise for revitalizing eastern Kentucky. He says the idea promoted by Congressman Hal Rogers to bring high-speed Internet to the region is especially important for job creation.

Watch an excerpt of the Kentucky Tonight conversation about the impact of coal job losses in central Appalachia.

Points of Disagreement
So who or what is responsible for the job losses the mining industry has suffered, especially in eastern Kentucky? That's where the discussion gets interesting.

Bissett says recent environmental regulations under the Obama Administration have specifically targeted the central Appalachian coalfields, costing eastern Kentucky some 7,000 direct mining jobs since 2012. He claims that has rippled through the local economy to result in a total net loss of more than 21,000 jobs.

"The president does deserve a large share of that," Bissett says. "This was his plan and it's created an eastern Kentucky coalfield that is more economically vulnerable than any other."

Gardner follows on that point to say there's not so much a war on coal as there is a war on Appalachian coal. He blames high permitting costs faced by mining companies in the region. (Those costs are elevated because of issues surrounding overbuden and spoil materials that come from strip mines.) Gardner says the health and environmental impacts of coal mining have been overblown.

The Kentucky Resource's Council Tom FitzGerald challenges the argument that permitting under the Obama administration is to blame for job losses. He says coal companies were shuttering fully permitted mines because of a lack of demand for the coal they produced. Utilities that have scrubbers prefer cheaper, high-sulfur coal from the western U.S. to the more expensive, low-sulfur coal in Appalachia, according to FitzGerald. Still other utilities are switching away from coal altogether in favor of cheaper, cleaner-burning natural gas.

Environmental educator Sarah Lynn Cunningham also adds technological changes to the list of factors that have cut mine-related employment. "The coal mining industry has shed jobs by the thousands for decades," Cunningham says. "Long before Barack Obama was born, this industry shed jobs as soon as mechanization would allow it."

As for the president's role, Cunningham and Fitzgerald also contend the Obama Administration is simply enforcing environmental regulations that have been in place since the 1990 amendments to the Clean Air Act amendment. Fitzgerald argues that even if Republicans gain control of Congress and the White House, and roll back all environmental regulations, many of the lost mining jobs still wouldn't come back.

The Prospects for Renewable Energy
Many environmental activists have called for more investments in renewable sources of energy such as solar, wind, and hydropower. Cunningham notes that she's used solar panels to generate electricity for her home for three years.

Gardner says while solar and wind may work for individual dwellings, they can't reliably power large-scale energy networks needed to run major factories or entire cities. The Kentucky Coal Association's Bill Bissett adds that Spain and Germany bankrupted their countries by pushing renewable energy sources, and are now moving back to coal-fired electricity.

FitzGerald agrees renewables won't displace fossil fuel-generated power in the short or mid-term, but he says they have significant potential over the long-term - not only as cleaner sources of energy, but as potential sources of employment for those who can develop the technology and install it around the country.

Watch the full Kentucky Tonight discussion.