End of the Road: The Shrinking Coal Industry of Appalachia

Coal. It’s one of Appalachia’s most abundant resources. Appalachia and coal are as synonymous as Texas and oil, Pittsburgh and steel, or Detroit and automobiles. It is no secret that coal was the lifeblood of Appalachia. Generations of our people depended on the coal industry to put food on the table and clothes on the backs of their families. Entire communities sprung up around the industry and became a future source of labor for it. That is what Appalachia used to be, but it has increasingly become something different.

The youth of Appalachia have found themselves in a terrible position. Generations that have followed in their parent’s footsteps are now finding they’ve reached the end of the road. Coal can no longer offer the sure life it once did. What makes it worse is that we have known this for a while now. No one in Appalachia expected to be left without a chair when the music stopped.

War on Coal

The Obama Presidency years were known in Appalachia as the war on coal. It was claimed by the industry and its supporters that President Obama’s administration attempted to impose stringent regulations on coal in the US. Their goal was to make coal power uneconomical. The administration denied that they were waging this war, however people like Michael Grunwald have claimed that the war was being fought primarily at the state and local level with the “boots on the ground” being Sierra Club lawyers. This was a “proxy war” so to speak.

It’s not hard to imagine the Federal government getting a smaller government to do its dirty work for them. A brief look at production figures will even show it.

In 2012, Virginia produced around 19 million short tons of coal, valued on the market at 2.1 billion dollars. Calculating for inflation, that’s about 2.3 billion dollars today. The height of Virginia coal production was in 1990, when the Commonwealth produced 47 million short tons of coal. Statistics clearly show that over two decades the numbers decreased.

Broken Promises

When Donald Trump was elected in 2016, he promised to reverse the Obama era policies and to get America’s coal miners back to work. In 2017, the administration announced it was putting a stop to the war on coal and would later that same year announce the war to be over. Many took this to mean that Trump’s promise would shortly come true. The out of work coal miners eagerly awaited phone calls or letters from their former employers announcing the return to normal work. These letters and calls never came.

To put it in a numbers perspective, the situation has only gotten worse under Trump. In 2019, production of coal in Virginia was down 7.7% from 2018, to just around 12 million short tons of coal with an estimated market value of 1.2 billion dollars.

Troubles Afar

To make matters worse, we have to look abroad. China, the world’s largest coal consumer, has announced that it is setting a carbon peak for the year 2030, with a net zero policy by the year 2060. ArcelorMittal in Europe, Baowu Steel of China, and Nippon Steel of Japan have all adopted net zero goals as well. They are turning to new steel making processes that rely upon renewable energies, and they are not alone. Nearly every coal consuming nation is doing the same as you read this.

We can no longer rely upon standard foreign markets to keep the Appalachian coal industry afloat.

Troubles At Home

The coal industry knows this and some companies have been none too subtle about it. Take Blackjewel Coal that had operations in Kentucky, West Virginia, Virginia, and Wyoming as an example. On July 1, 2019, they filed for bankruptcy. In total the company laid off about 1700 miners, most of them from Appalachia. Shortly after this, workers began to report bounced paychecks and being unable to access their 401(k)s.

Then, on July 29th, the company attempted to remove more than $1 million worth of extracted coal from their Harlan county mine via rail. Former miners blocked the tracks and held the shipment for nearly two months. It wasn’t until September 28th that the protest was declared over, after most of the former employees had found new work and settlement negotiations had begun. In the end, Blackjewel paid almost $5.5 million to their former workers.

This is just one of many examples of the long road of Appalachian coal coming to an end.

Other examples would include the Virginia state assembly pushing to end the coal tax credits. This follows a report stating they are costing the commonwealth more than they are helping. From 2010-2018 the Commonwealth spent $315 million on coal tax credits but it generated fewer than 10 jobs, less than $1 million in state GDP, and less than $1 million in personal income from every $1 million the commonwealth spent. The report goes on to state that during this period, the Virginia economy lost 35 jobs, $21 million in state GDP, and $5 million in personal income because of these credits.

Other Industries Wait Their Turn

In response, the Virginia Coalfield Development Authority wants to make tax credits available to the data center industry in an effort to draw tech to Southwest Virginia to replace the drying up coal industry.

Delegate Kilgore (R-Scott) has supported legislation that would set up a fund for grants to renewable energy companies. The desire is for these companies to clean up previously developed but contaminated land and place renewable energy sources there. The legislation makes note of near 71,000 acres of land afflicted by coal mining and brownfields in southwest Virginia that could be redeveloped.

Whatever your opinion on renewable energy, this would mean jobs for Appalachians. These jobs are needed now more than ever. In an age where the livelihoods of many are gone — or will soon be gone — we need to explore what comes next. How will Appalachians keep the lights on and how will they pay to do so?

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Smokey the Appalachistani
A movement of the people of Western Virginia to break away from Richmond as to allow us to eventually form our a 51st state known as the State of Appalachia.
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