With the addition of last week’s announcement that 600 miners and other employees of Arch Coal in Kentucky would be losing their jobs, current estimates place the total number of job cuts in the local industry at around 1,500 since December.
In a region where good paying jobs are already hard to come by, this is anything but welcome news, and it’s likely going to get worse.
Kentucky Senator Brandon Smith recently made note of something that indicates the local coal industry could be in trouble, and possibly for the long haul. Several power companies in the nation have announced that they will be, or already are, making the move to natural gas to generate their customers’ electricity needs. As Sen. Smith noted, if the utilities go forward and build the necessary infrastructure to utilize natural gas, which is currently a cheap source of power, then we can be certain that coal is largely out the door domestically, and we’re going to be getting our power from natural gas for a few decades to come. The average lifespan for a natural gas plant is approximately 75 years, according to the U.S. Energy Information Agency.
So, what does that mean for us here in Eastern Kentucky, where despite the recent cuts thousands of miners are still working at surface and underground mines? Frankly, it isn’t a good outlook, and it means we’ve got a lot of work to do because we have no other alternative to pick up the slack.
We don’t foresee a time in the coming years when absolutely no coal is being mined in Eastern Kentucky, and we can’t predict when we’ll reach the bottom of the current downturn, but what we can say is that if we don’t work to diversify now, our economy is going to sputter to the point that it can’t support the people it currently does. People will move away from Appalachia, in higher numbers than they presently do, in search of something better.
We can’t help but think that Eastern Kentucky, and Perry County in particular, has a tremendous amount of potential. We should be working to save the coal jobs we have left, but we also should be capitalizing on the other things we have going for us.
Through Hazard Community and Technical College and the University Center of the Mountains we have a means to train or re-train people for a number of professions. We also have an able and intelligent workforce.
We also have the natural beauty that our mountains provide that can spur a viable tourism industry. Other counties have acted as models for this, and there is no reason why our local leaders can’t work with our state legislators to build a regional tourism industry stretching from Pike to Laurel County. Most of those counties in southeastern Kentucky have their own histories with bloody family feuds, and the recent popularity of the Hatfield and McCoy feud shows that there is interest there.
Here in Perry County we also have two state legislators that have shown a definite willingness to work on tourism initiatives. We hope they can continue to offer meaningful legislation in Frankfort to that end.
But in the end we’re going to have to attract or create an industry or industries that will replace the hundreds of jobs we have lost, and more we are likely to lose. We see a lot of blame going around for last week’s job loss in the coal fields, but blaming is going to do little good. The federal government is not going to change its policy (we’re highly doubtful that a President Romney would change much either), the coal jobs for Arch are not coming back, and we can’t expect to have any help from those outside the region because, frankly, they have no help to give and likely wouldn’t give it if they did.
No, we are sailing these rough and choppy waters on our own, and it’s going to be up to us to navigate them to dry land. The only question now is, are we up to it?
- The Hazard Herald