Bissett discussed how the Kentucky coal industry has been changing in recent years on two fronts: while Eastern Kentucky coal in the Appalachian Coal Basin is becoming increasingly difficult to reach and bring up from the ground, Western Kentucky coal in the Illinois Coal Basin – though containing a higher sulfur content – is becoming more and more of a viable option. Consequently, Kentucky’s coal industry is a story of two regions moving in different directions economically.
Still, both Kentucky’s Appalachian and Illinois Basins are facing a new and similar kind of pressure from the current administration, a pressure that is driving more and more coal outside American borders and into developing nations like India and China, and even into traditionally greener European nations like Germany.
The EPA’s newest greenhouse gas rules and mandates like the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (which has a minimum cost of $10 billion per year), are a significant contributing factor to Kentucky’s record exports of coal to foreign nations, but also for the overall downturn in Kentucky’s energy sector in recent years. Indeed, the EPA has made establishing new coal-fired power plants virtually impossible, but has also made it so utilities located in a coalfield, cannot afford to use that coal to generate power.
According to Bissett,
“In many cases coal-fired plants are] shutting down altogether, and we’re even seeing that with some power plants located literally within our coal field, which is very concerning when you have a large utility like AP saying that it economically cannot burn coal to create electricity within our own coal field. That’s a serious concern. And do we lay some of the blame of that to the administration, to the president? Absolutely. When they’ve enacted environmental rules that only affect eastern Kentucky and West Virginia and only the industry of coal mining, we feel very put upon, and that’s one of the reasons we often sue them.”
And sue the EPA Kentucky has, most recently winning a court battle brought on by the EPA blocking mining permits that were already approved by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
But such court wins are not enough in the face of an administration hell-bent on bankrupting Kentucky coal – and new Eastern Kentucky unemployment statistics prove that point. According to WYMT in Harlan, KY, despite jobless rates being down in 83 Kentucky counties for the month of January, eastern coal counties are still suffering from prolonged double-digit unemployment. Harlan County has it worst at nearly 16% unemployment, and coal layoffs are to blame.
Sure there are costs to burning coal – there are costs related with every form of energy production. But there are also tremendous benefits. And those costs and benefits must be weighted by the local citizens most familiar and interested in the energy source, not federal bureaucracies.
Bissett summed up this challenge nicely:
“And every form of electricity production has some kind of economic and environmental cost to it. And that to me is a whole issue to itself, let alone the issues of reliability and scope: How much electricity can it produce, and how consistently can it produce it? And that becomes what kind of world do we want to live in, literally? I mean, you know, electricity benefits all of our lives. We’ve got nearly two billion people on this planet that don’t have electricity. They don’t live as long as we do, and they don’t have the same quality of life. So at the end of the day, yes it does have a price, but it’s a price that does benefit our lives.”