CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- At Gov. Tomblin's Energy Summit, keynote speaker Bob Murray, president of Murray Energy, blamed the decline of Appalachian coal mostly on pollution controls by President Obama "as he appeases his radical environmentalist, unionist, liberal elitist, Hollywood character and other constituencies that got him elected."
But most experts don't blame federal pollution limits alone for the relentless slippage of coal in West Virginia's economy. Instead, they say that depletion of profitable coal seams and competition from low-cost natural gas undercut the mining industry in the Southern Appalachian basin.
"Life After Coal," a documentary earlier this year by two scholars at Appalachian State University in North Carolina, Tom Hansell and Patricia Beaver, compares Appalachia with Wales, where coal mining nearly ended a quarter-century ago.
"What happens when fossil fuels run out?" they write. " ... In the Appalachian mountains, where coal mining is projected to decline dramatically this decade, some people are looking to Wales for answers."
They said both regions are "tragically similar," adding:
"The Welsh coalfields were mostly shut down in the 1980s, with a loss of more than 85,000 jobs. Meanwhile, the Appalachian coalfields lost over 70,000 mining jobs between 1980 and 2000, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. A June 2012 EIA report projects that Appalachian production will be cut in half this decade."
The researchers say Wales had 230,000 coal miners in 485 pits in 1914, but unstoppable decline reduced the industry to near zero by the 1980s. However, thanks to recent reopening of a few mines, Wales now has about 1,000 miners.
To replace the lost industry, the British government launched massive cleanup and restoration efforts that spawned tourism and recreation in Wales. But most of today's jobs are low-wage service work, compared to the mining heyday of yesteryear.
Will Southern West Virginia's coalfields follow the pattern of Wales? This state's leaders should stop blaming federal pollution limits and begin intelligent planning for the different future that is developing, right before everyone's eyes.
Kentucky's progressive Democratic governor, Steve Beshear, and Republican congressman Hal Rogers are doing just that. They spearheaded SOAR (Shaping Our Appalachian Region), a massive attempt to find alternatives after the rapid retreat of coal mining in eastern Kentucky, which has lost 6,000 miners in the past two years.
The Lexington Herald-Leader said too many Kentucky politicians still are "pounding the 'war on coal' drum," but SOAR offers a chance "to take the lead in shaping a future for the region as the coal industry sank deeper into decline."
West Virginia leaders should strive to do as well here.