I wanted to take a moment to depart from the usual fare here for a somewhat more personal observation. I grew up in an APCO (Appalachian Power Company) household in southern West Virginia. I also grew up in the heart of West Virginia’s Coal Country, Logan County. So I read with great interest this piece, which detailed remarks from APCO President Charles Patton to other energy executives during a gathering in the Mountain State. Patton explains that regardless of the success of the Obama Administration’s Clean Power Plan, coal use is not likely to increase. West Virginians, he says, must accept the political and economic realities of modern life — that coal power is comparatively expensive when viewed against other forms of energy production, that most Americans accept the prevailing view of climate change, and that most Americans do not live in coal-producing states. That’s a terrible combination for the coal industry.
Perhaps Patton’s analysis, while sincere, is wrong. Perhaps improvements in coal production will make it sustainable and that Americans, even though they may not live in Coal Country, will experience, and value, the benefits of coal production in an all-of-the-above energy regime. But if Patton is right, then those small communities in southern West Virginia – like mine in Logan – that have been decimated by the decline of the coal industry will need more help than ever. Even those families not directly in the coal industry are deeply affected by the industry’s decline. Perhaps there will be ways for the energy sector to create good jobs and offer economic relief for those West Virginia families, such as by siting new natural gas plants or other energy-related facilities in southern West Virginia. Perhaps there will be ways for this and future generations of coal families to transition to different professional opportunities in the energy sector.
Don’t get me wrong, life was tough for Logan Countians back in the 1970s and 80s, too. The coal industry’s decline is not a new phenomenon. Still, it is hard to watch the continued decline of these communities, and to know that they are at the mercy of a political and cultural phenomenon beyond their control.